Five years ago this week, Robin Williams died by suicide. Given Williams’ status as a much-loved and much-respected global celebrity, this made worldwide news.
Since then, researchers across North America have conducted a series of research studies related to Robin Williams' suicide, centered upon the concept of suicide contagion, also known as copycat suicides, imitation suicides or the Werther effect.
What Is Suicide Contagion?
A large corpus of research indicates that suicide mortality increases after the death of a well-known celebrity. This appears to be most marked in the immediate days and weeks following the high-profile suicide. This is known as suicide contagion.
It is theorized that this increase is due to at-risk individuals identifying with the celebrity and their action. Such identification can lead individuals to perceive the celebrity's suicide as a heroic and decisive act worthy of emulation, with suicide seen as a possible response to ongoing struggles.
Interestingly, these suicides are significantly more likely to use the same lethal methods as the celebrity's suicide. Likewise, they tend to be elevated in the same demographic as the high-profile suicide. This is hard evidence that identification with the celebrity plays a role in copycat suicides.
The Media and Suicide Contagion
Some studies indicate that suicide contagion may be particularly pronounced when media coverage of a high-profile suicide is detailed and sensational. Media reports that glamourize the suicide may be especially concerning, as are reports that detail the lethal methods used.
Such reports are considered to negatively impact at-risk individuals, by framing suicide as a glamourous option, while giving enough details for individuals to mimic the suicide.
Consequently, numerous organizations have produced suicide media reporting guidelines including the World Health Organization, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the U.S. based Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.
Common recommendations across these guidelines include ‘do not go into detail about the methods used’, ‘avoid language that sensationalizes or romanticizes the suicide’ and ‘provide information about seeking help.'
Media Coverage of Robin Williams’ Suicide
Given this situation, my colleagues and I analyzed the tone and content of media coverage of Robin Williams’ suicide in a recently published paper. This involved gathering newspaper articles covering Williams’ suicide and assessing adherence to core recommendations.
Specifically, this involved a comparison of the Canadian and U.S. media. Interestingly, the Canadian media tended to follow core guidelines much more closely than the U.S. media. For example, 46% of US articles went into detail about the methods used, compared to only 24% of Canadian articles.
Likewise, 27% of U.S. articles tended to romanticize the act, compared to 14% of Canadian articles. Importantly, approximately 1 in 4 Canadian articles gave details about where to seek help, in comparison to only 1 in 10 U.S articles.
This raises an important research question: Is this differential coverage associated with differential suicide mortality in Canada and the U.S in the period following Robin Williams’ death?
Suicide Mortality After Robin Williams’ Death
In an innovative epidemiological study, David Fink and colleagues at Columbia University set out to examine suicide mortality in the US following Robin Williams’ suicide. This found a 10% increase in suicides in the months following this death, concentrated in middle-aged men.
Such an increase may have been related to the sensational nature of media coverage in the U.S., pushing some at-risk vulnerable people over the edge. This hypothesis could be further explored by examining suicides in Canada during the same months, where media coverage was more responsible.
As such, the Columbia team and I joined forces to examine suicides in Canada in the same months. Surprisingly, we found a 16% increase in suicides in these months, again concentrated in middle-aged men, reported in a just-published paper.
There was an increase in suicide mortality in the US following Robin Williams’ suicide, which was correlated with irresponsible media coverage. However, there was also an increase in suicide mortality in Canada at the same time, despite considerably more responsible media coverage.
This paints a complex picture, indicating that the mainstream media may play a role, but other factors are likely at play.
These complex results have numerous possible explanations. To start, merely reporting a celebrity suicide could contribute to suicide contagion, even if done responsibly and sensitively. Also, many Canadians consume US media voraciously, which may have contributed to increased rates.
Importantly, the studies did not assess social and alternative media, which has an increasingly important and dominant reach and impact. Indeed, some related research suggests that these media are displacing mainstream media as a go-to source of information.
While efforts to improve suicide reporting in the mainstream media must intensify, new initiatives are needed to assess the role of social and alternative media in suicide contagion. Indeed, this is a new frontier in suicide research and a domain in need of innovative research and action.
Such new research and action would be a fitting tribute to Robin Williams and all those who have lost their lives to suicide. Let’s remember them all during this somber anniversary.
For those in distress:
Readers can obtain 24-hour emotional support from national telephone helplines including the US National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-8255; Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 (1-866-277-3553 in Quebec); and the UK Samaritans on 116 123. Readers elsewhere can obtain local helpline numbers and suicide prevention resources via the internet. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.