When comedian and actor Robin Williams died by suicide in 2014, many people felt as though they lost a friend or member of their family after watching him appear on TV and in movies for decades. According to a new study, the suicide rate in the U.S. increased by about 10 percent in the four months following his death.
The research, published in the journal PLOS One, found that this may have been an instance of the previously documented "celebrity suicide effect" in which there is an increase in deaths by suicide following a well-known person dying in that manner. Although the increase was observed across gender and age groups, it was the most pronounced among men aged 30 to 44.
“Research has shown that the number of suicides increases following a high-profile celebrity suicide, but this is the first study, to our knowledge, that has examined the effect of a high-profile suicide on the general population within the modern era of the 24-hours news cycle,” David S. Fink of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health's department of epidemiology said in a statement.
Following Williams' death, the World Health Organization issued a set of guidelines for journalists for covering suicide, including avoiding sensationalism and sensitivity around the method of suicide, the precipitating factors and the risk factors for suicide apparent in the deceased.
While traditional media plays a role in how suicide and mental health in general are portrayed, the emergence of social media as a way of disseminating information should also be considered. For example, there was minimal change in suicide rates following Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994, Fink added.
“Williams’ death may have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the US population, especially middle-aged men in despair, to move from suicidal ideation to attempt,” he said in a statement.
But with social media, the internet has also made suicide prevention resources, like the ones provided at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, more accessible.
If you're considering suicide or fear you may become suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24-7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you're worried about someone you love, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
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