Just like a cold, suicide can be contagious.
It can spread to or affect other people. Adolescents, especially, are susceptible to increasing thoughts of suicide, or can be tempted to end their lives following a suicide or the attempted-suicide of someone else, especially someone as prominent as Robin Williams.
Just talking about suicide isn’t what is toxic. It’s the way we talk about it that matters the most.
Following the death of Robin Williams, at first it seemed as if the media finally had covered the suicide of a famous person appropriately. It started with a simple description of how Williams died, statements about his struggles with mental illness and depression, the expressed sadness of family members and the memorializing of his life’s work — pretty much what is recommended by mental-health experts in order to contain the contagion.
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But then the coverage morphed into sometimes lurid details and descriptions about Williams’ method, followed by a Twitter post by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suggesting Williams is now “free” — precisely what mental-health professionals have warned against.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, along with many other suicide-prevention organizations, has created a list of guidelines for the media to follow. The suggestions include:
• Provide useful information without lapsing into “sensationalizing” language or headlines.
• Avoid phrases, such as “successful suicide,” that may glamorize self-destructive behavior.
• When talking about suicide, tone and nuance can be especially important in minimizing the risk that youngsters will model the behavior of celebrities who make deadly choices.
Even well-intentioned tributes can have tragic consequences. Young people in mental-health treatment struggling with suicidal thoughts might reason: “If Robin Williams, a wonderful, hilarious and engaging comedian — a genius, some said — can’t come up with a better solution, then what’s there for me?”
From many peer-reviewed studies of mental health, we know that thoughts or feelings of suicide — and even attempts to end one’s life — often increase in the aftermath of suicide. Like a traditional infection, the illness spreads.
A public figure’s death by suicide can be transmitted like a virus. A recent article published in the New York Times, written by Margot Sanger-Katz, documented a significant increase in the U.S. suicide rate in the months following Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962.
Likewise, the number of calls to a suicide hotline in Seattle spiked following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. And this was before Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media and Internet allowed information to be transmitted instantly.
Glorification of a death by suicide could affect someone who is already susceptible. Most important, it also puts or keeps the option of suicide on the table for someone struggling to remove it.
Consider the case of a teenager already experiencing some thoughts of suicide — and about 20 percent of adolescents report having some, even if fleeting, thoughts about ending their lives. The teen may be working hard in therapy and/or with the use of medications to eliminate these thoughts. But then he or she sees a viral tweet suggesting that one of their favorite actors who killed himself is “free” from anguish? The option of suicide becomes more real, more appealing.
Unfortunately, far too many children and adults already take their own lives out of hopelessness or despair. Education, readily accessible mental healthcare and the involvement of well-meaning loved ones all are part of the solution.
But reporters, and the media in general, also must play a role by taking care not to glorify the death of a celebrity who chose to end his or her own life.
It is time for the media to change the narrative about suicide — which is often overlooked entirely, or discussed only in the most sensational ways. What if the reporting of a public figure’s suicide began and ended with facts about the celebrity’s enduring struggle with depression or substance abuse — and not detailed descriptions of his or her methods? What if the conversation is about destigmatizing mental illness, rather than about the melodramatic details of a celebrity’s descent? What if journalists wrote about hope, instead of despair?
Suicide is contagious, and the media must be part of the solution, not the problem.
Andrea Barrocas Gottlieb is a clinical psychology intern at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School.