This post is not about the recent death of Robin Williams, though that certainly sparked it. Personally, I was saddened, but also distant. Much as I enjoyed Robin Williams as an entertainer, and empathized with his struggles (some of which I share), he is still a person I know only through media.
What happened after his death is what I want to talk about. Some time ago, researchers discovered that there was often a measurable increase in the rate of suicides, especially among teens, after the suicide of a celebrity. The link is so well established that American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides recommendations for reporting on the about how the media should cover these events.
Most of the recommendations come from the CDC’s national workshop report, here. Notably, this is from 1994. The findings of the report, which identifies the issue as “suicide contagion” include:
Factors that might INCREASE the likelihood of suicide contagion:
- Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide.
- Engaging in repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide in the news.
- Providing sensational coverage of suicide.
- Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide.
- Focusing on the suicide completer’s positive characteristics.
Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer’s life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person “was a great kid” or “had a bright future,” and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer’s problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons — especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.
While the media (generally) has done a fairly good job of adopting these guidelines, social media is now the place where most of us get our news about any celebrity suicide. The result is that we are all exposed to the kind of debating and reporting that has been shown to be a problem in the past. This is exacerbated because it goes back and forth. One person provides a simplified, possibly insulting explanation, then another provides an defense the glorifies the person. It’s what we do, how we communicate. But as we, as social media participants, take over more and more the role of traditional media in passing on and commenting on events such as this, we should also be aware of the guidelines.