Celebrity Suicides and Suicide Contagion

Will the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade increase the suicide rate?

Posted Jun 30, 2018

After the recent and widely reported deaths by suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, dozens of news articles have warned of potential “copycat” or “social contagion” suicides in the general population. A significant evidence base supports these concerns. Over 40 years ago, David Phillips (1974) examined U.S. and U.K. suicide rates from 1947 to 1968 and reported that suicides increased after highly publicized deaths by suicide.  He proposed that news reports of suicides influenced suicide risk by means of “suggestion.”  He dubbed this the “Werther effect,” after the title character of the 1774 novella by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe’s novella tells the tale of a young man who falls in love with a married woman and who kills himself rather than live without her. The book was hugely popular and helped to spark the Romantic Movement in literature and the arts. Enthusiastic young men took to dressing like Werther, in custard yellow trousers and a bright blue tailcoat. Stories of suicides inspired by the work soon swept through Europe; there were unofficial reports of young men (and women) killing themselves with a copy of the book close at hand. The city of Leipzig banned both the book and the sartorial style associated with it. Italy and Denmark also banned the book (but not the clothing).

There is actually little evidence that a spate of imitative suicides occurred after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Frank Furedi (2015) described the reaction to the book by governments and commentators as a “moral panic.” When I first read the novella it seemed to me highly unlikely that anyone – even the most depressed, suggestible person – would read about Werther’s death by suicide and then decide to imitate it. In the story, Werther borrows two pistols from the husband of his beloved and later shoots himself in the head. However, he does not die instantly (or, presumably, painlessly). For twelve hours, he lies on the floor, alone in a room, helpless and dying – a hard death indeed. Since suicidal people wish primarily to end their pain, and not to increase their suffering, Werther’s mode of death seems to be an unlikely source of inspiration. One must further note that no increases in suicide were reported after the publication of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), both of which include vivid and dramatic accounts of suicide.

Wikimedia. Werther and Lotte, artist unknown.
Source: Wikimedia. Werther and Lotte, artist unknown.

Werther and its purported effects in the 18th century notwithstanding, real-life celebrity suicides do appear to effect suicide rates. In 1984, Ira Wasserman published a re-examination of the Phillips (1974) data. He noted that front-page news articles on suicides only resulted in increased rates of suicide when the death was that of a celebrity. A later meta-analysis of 10 studies involving 98 celebrity suicides confirmed the phenomenon of short-term increases in suicide rates after these events (Neiderkrotenthaler et al., 2012). A recently published study (Fink, Santaella-Tenorio, & Keyes, 2018) found that suicide rates increased in the United States in the four months after the highly publicized death by suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams in August 2014. The researchers suggested that this event may have contributed to 1,841 “excess deaths” by suicide; that is, people who died by suicide who would not otherwise have done so.

The imitative effects of a celebrity suicide may be even stronger with regard to selection of suicide method. In November 2009, the famous German soccer player Robert Enke died by suicide by standing in front of an oncoming railway train. His death resulted in a nearly 20 percent increase in suicide by that method over the next two years in Germany (Hegerl et al., 2013). A subsequent study examined the effect of Enke’s death on railway suicides in five other European countries and found similar increases in that method both shortly after the event and over the next two years (Koburger et al., 2015). This copycat behavior with regard to suicide method was also observed in South Korea after the death by charcoal burning (carbon monoxide poisoning) of celebrity Ahn Jae-Hwan in September 2008. One year before his death that method had accounted for less than 1 percent of all suicide deaths in South Korea but over the subsequent 12 months that figure rose to nearly 5 percent (772 deaths). The researchers concluded that “Ahn Jae-Hwan's death appears to have triggered a rapid and sustained adoption of charcoal burning as a method of suicide in South Korea.”

The United States has been experiencing significant increases in deaths by suicide over the past several years. I am inclined to describe the situation as a suicide epidemic. Economic uncertainty, long-term unemployment, loss of faith in institutions, the increasing dissolution of families, and the easy availability of opioids and other drugs have all contributed to the current crisis. If celebrity suicides increase the risk of “regular people” ending their lives by suicide, then we should be aware that there are possibly more people than ever “on the bubble” and susceptible to such negative influences. With regard to the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we should be particularly concerned that both used the same highly lethal method to kill themselves. If even a small percentage of suicidal people change their method of suicide from self-poisoning by medication to the far more lethal method of hanging, then suicide rates will surely increase.

If you are thinking about suicide, seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at (800) 273-8255.

References

Chen, Y., Yip, P.S.F., Chan, C., Fu, K., Chang, S., Lee, W., & Gunnell, D. (2014). The impact of a celebrity’s suicide on the introduction and establishment of a new method of suicide in South Korea. Archives of Suicide Research, 18(2), 221-226.

Fink, D.S., Santaella-Tenorio, J., & Keyes, K.M. (2018). Increase in suicides the months after the death of Robin Williams in the U.S. PLOS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191405

Furedi, F. (2015). The media’s first moral panic. History Today.

Hegerl, U., Koburger, N., Rummel-Kluge, C., Gravert, C., Walden, M., & Mergl, R. (2013). One followed by many? Long-term effects of a celebrity suicide on the number of suicidal acts on the German railway net. Journal of Affective Disorders, 146(1), 39-44.

Koburger, N., Mergl, R., Rummel-Kluge, C., …& Hegerl, U. (2015). Celebrity suicide on the railway network: Can one case trigger international effects? Journal of Affective Disorders, 185, 38-46.

Niederkrotenthaler, T., Fu, K., Yip, S.F., Fong, D.Y.T., Stack, S., Cheng, Q., & Pirkis, J. (2012). Changes in suicide rates following media reports on celebrity suicide: A meta-analysis. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66(11), 1037-1042.

Phillips, D. P. (1974). The influence of suggestion on suicide: Substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 39(3), 340-354.

Wasserman, I.M. (1984). Imitation and suicide: A reexamination of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 49(3), 427-436.