The Shocking Influence of the Media on Suicide Attempts

After two high-profile lives end brutally, the conversation now becomes, 'How can we better help those in pain?'

With the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain both in the past week, many people are wondering this weekend why those who seem to have everything would choose to end it all.

Mental health problems can affect anyone, of course.

And wealth and popularity do not insulate anyone from the devastating effects of depression or life’s sudden storms.

“We’re surrounded by these celebrities, and in a sense, we feel like we know them,” Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area that is America’s first national pro-life organization, told LifeZette. “We feel such a connection to so many of the people we’ve lost, including some of the more accessible celebrities, like Bourdain and Spade and Robin Williams. But they had internal struggles.”

Perhaps a fast-paced, very public lifestyle even adds to the pressure to be “perfect.”

“In certain professions, you do have to put on that face and arguably get used to covering up how you feel,” said Foster. “They maybe get a little more adept at covering internal struggles. And maybe they’re not as accustomed to reaching out to others for support.”

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Those who have taken their own lives, said Foster, have a “perfect storm” of problems — not only mental health issues, but perhaps also exhaustion combined with a breakup or other interpersonal problems. “There is a perception that when it comes to suicide, mental health treatment alone can save the day, that somehow we should have intervened and saved the person.”

No one is immune to the stresses of today’s fast-paced, modern world, whether people have documented mental health issues or not.

“Here’s the truth: It isn’t that those considering suicide hate life. They hate life the way it is,” said Tim Clinton, president of American Association of Christian Counselors, in a statement provided to LifeZette. “The reality is that a meaningful life does not flow from any amount of fame, power or possessions.”

He added, “We are learning more and more how mental health struggles and the pace, pain and pressures of everyday life can cloud the mind, fuel rumination, make burdens seem impossible to bear, and increase feelings of isolation.”

Foster pointed to a 2015 CDC report: It revealed that in 27 states, over half the suicides were by those who had no known mental health issues.

“When you look at the reasons for suicide, it’s so much deeper than just the mental health of the individual,” explained Foster. “Lots of times the person is going through a significant life change, and it’s not just one factor — it’ll be a compounding effect of several.”

Notably, a well-publicized suicide may serve as a trigger for suicide by susceptible individuals struggling with multiple issues. This is known as a suicide cluster and is also known to many mental health professionals as the Werther Effect.

This “effect” played out hundreds of years ago when a rash of suicides by young men took place after they read a book, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” published in 1774 — and killed themselves just as the main character had, with a pistol.

“Some were even holding the book turned to the page where the Werther killed himself [when they were found],” said Foster, emphasizing the contagious nature of suicide. “People have even committed suicide while in a funeral procession for someone who has killed themselves. It’s that contagious.”

A critical component often overlooked during the national conversation on suicide is the media’s reporting on it. “People are surrounded by media stories about successful suicides, but there is less discussion about survived suicides — and about those who survived their attempt and also regretted it,” said Foster. “We need more of those hopeful stories.”

Related: Suicide and What It Means for Your Family

After actor Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (also the way that both Spade and Bourdain reportedly took their own lives, coincidentally or not), there was voracious media reporting on the death — and a severe uptick in suicides.

“In the four months after Williams’ death by suicide in August 2014, CDC data revealed that there were 18,690 deaths by suicide in the U.S. — significantly more than the 16,849 suicides that past data and trends would have predicted for that time period,” noted Time magazine.

When Catherine Foster of Americans United for Life speaks on the topic of suicide, she often points to media coverage of Williams’ death. “The covers of magazines following his death included the words ‘tortured,’ ‘despair,’ ‘failed,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘demons,’ ‘tragic,’ ‘way too soon’ — so many dramatically visceral words there,” she said.

Foster pointed to a field experiment done in Vienna, Austria, in 1978, after a spate of suicides on the subways of that city — suicides the media reported on nonstop.

Related: Here’s Why We Don’t Need ’13 Reasons Why’

“There was a campaign to change the way the media reported these suicides, and they saw an 80 percent drop in both subway suicides and attempts, from the first part of 1978 to the second half,” explained Foster. “That was an incredibly dramatic difference, depending on if the media are offering hope.”

Experts also emphasize that everyone must always ask that hard and direct question of anyone they worry about: “Are you considering suicide?”

“Life is fragile, and anyone can be affected by depression. We can’t always tell,” said Foster. “As friends, as family members and citizens, it’s our responsibility to look out for others.”

Related: Guess Who’s Most at Risk for Suicide?

Tim Clinton of the American Association of Christian Counselors concurs. “If someone near you is hurting, reach out with compassion and make sure he knows he doesn’t have to face the struggles alone,” he said in his statement. “We are dealing with a global mental health crisis, one we must confront as we would any other humanitarian crisis. There’s no time to lose.”

Also worth pointing out: Teens and even younger children than that are not immune from feelings of severe hopelessness. Parents must stay alert and be proactive if they suspect their child may be at risk.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor with LifeZette. Follow her on Twitter.

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