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Can Celebrity Suicides Lead to Copycat Deaths?

New research explores roots of suicide contagion.

In Japan, it's known as "Yukiko Syndrome."

Following the suicide of Japanese pop singer Yukiko Okada in 1986, there was a sharp rise in copycat suicides across Japan. Though the suicide rate quickly returned to normal, "Yukiko syndrome" quickly took on a life of its own and the prospect of further copycat deaths is often raised whenever a high-profile suicide occurs. And similar cases of copycat suicides following a celebrity death can be found around the world.

Beginning in 1774 when the publication of Johann Goethe's book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, triggered a rash of suicides by impressionable people imitating the book's hero, copycat suicides have been a recurring problem. Dubbed the "Werther effect" after Goethe's book, the role that mass media can play in spreading suicide contagion is still not well-understood. Despite numerous research studies showing a rise in average suicide rates and emergency room admissions for attempted suicide following a celebrity death, nobody is quite sure why this happens.

Though studies have shown that preexisting mental health problems such as depression can make people more vulnerable to suicide, this is something that can occur at any time. In looking at why media stories describing a celebrity suicide might act as a trigger for copycat deaths, psychologists have suggested social learning may be playing a role.

According to psychologist Albert Bandura, our behavior is often influenced by the desire to model ourselves after the way important people in our lives behave. In the classic "Bobo doll experiment" conducted by Bandura, children became more aggressive after watching an adult acting aggressively towards an inflated Bobo doll while children who were not provided with an adult model ignored the doll completely.

Bandura argued that the adult actors became effective models for children to imitate because children and adults depend on social cues that define how they should behave in different situations. Seeing an adult acting this way suggested to the children that it was acceptable behavior for them to follow. And they did for the most part.

In understanding why celebrity suicides can be contagious, social learning theory suggests that the example of a well-known celebrity committing suicide may make them into role models for vulnerable fans to imitate. Once suicide is seen as an acceptable behavior, people experiencing depression may be more likely to commit suicide as a result.

Along with making suicide seem more acceptable, celebrity suicides can also lead to what researchers call death thought accessibility (DTA). While we usually avoid thoughts of death, the passing of someone we know, even if it's a celebrity we never met, can cause us to fixate on the subject of death more than we might have otherwise. For people already feeling depressed or suicidal, this increased focus on death and dying may act to tip them over the edge into actively suicidal behavior.

A new study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture explores how and why suicide contagion occurs after a celebrity suicide. Conducted by Christine Ma-Kellams of Harvard University and a team of co-researchers, this study examines some of the cognitive mechanisms that can influence particularly vulnerable people into contemplating or attempting self-harm.

Using 300 participants recruited through Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, the research was carried out in August 2014. This target date was used since two high-profile celebrity deaths had occurred that same month: the suicide of Robin Williams on August 11 and the death of Lauren Bacall from natural causes on August 12.

All participants completed an online questionnaire measuring depression and suicidal thinking. They were then assigned to different experimental conditions in which they were asked to write down the thoughts that came to mind when reflecting on the death of a celebrity from suicide (Williams), natural causes (Bacall), or by accident (the 2013 overdose death of Cory Monteith). As a counterbalance, another set of participants were told to reflect on the life of these particular celebrities rather than the circumstances of their death. All participants then completed a brief measure of depressed mood.

To measure death thought accessibility (DTA), each participant completed a set of 12-word fragments requiring them to fill in missing letters. Used in previous research studies into DTA, the word fragments are designed to be completed as either neutral or death-related words. For example, COR_ _ _ could be completed as "corpse" or a more neutral word such as "corner."

Attitudes towards suicide were also measured using a questionnaire asking participants to rate their agreement to statements such as, “Suicide is an acceptable means to end an incurable illness” and, “There may be situations where the only reasonable resolution is suicide."

Not surprisingly, participants who scored high in depressed mood were more likely to regard suicide as being normal and acceptable. Highly depressed participants were also more likely than non-depressed to regard suicide as normal or acceptable after thinking about a celebrity suicide as opposed to a death from natural causes. For non-depressed participants however, the difference in death thought accessibility showed little difference across different kinds of celebrity deaths.

As expected, these results suggest that depressed people are particularly vulnerable to feeling more suicidal following a well-publicized celebrity death. Part of this seems to hinge on the death thought accessibility that often occurs while ruminating about a celebrity suicide. Even ruminating about a non-suicide (such as Cory Monteith's overdose death) can also lead to increased thoughts of death in vulnerable people, something that hadn't really been reported in research studies previously.

While these results are intriguing, more research is still needed to explore how death thought accessibility and changes in attitudes toward suicide can lead to actual suicidal behavior. This study only focuses on the cognitive processes that can follow a celebrity death however so it is still unclear how this translates into a conscious decision to commit suicide.

It also suggests that the media needs to be more sensitive to how they publicize the suicides of well-known people. Various suicide prevention and mental health organizations have proposed guidelines for news media sites to follow which, hopefully, can cut down on copycat deaths. Some of these guidelines include:

  • Always providing suicide prevention information along with suicide stories, including numbers for suicide prevention hotlines or websites.
  • Mentioning that untreated depression is the number one cause for suicides.
  • Stress that anyone suffering from depression needs to get immediate help.
  • Avoid reporting specific details that copycats might follow, including the method used.
  • Avoid romanticizing suicide or making it seem like an exciting news story.
  • Avoid using the word "suicide" in the headline if possible.

Though not every news agency or website will follow these guidelines, most of the larger chains and news channels have changed the way they report suicides.

Despite greater awareness of media responsibility, news of a celebrity suicide will always raise the prospect of copycat deaths. This is especially true if it involves a well-loved celebrity whose death generates enormous media attention—which makes it critical to recognize that there are always alternatives to suicide.

So be aware of the potential impact of this kind of news on people you know. That awareness can be literally life-saving.

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