When a high-profile or celebrity commits suicide, it’s predictably all over the news. In fact, you can’t escape the mass media coverage. Not only do the headlines scream out from the front pages of newspapers, but the television coverage is blatantly exploitative, prying into every nook and cranny of the celebrity’s life – before, during and after the suicide. Then, there’s the Internet and satellite TV, which greatly expand the global reach of the news. The result is that all these factors contribute to social learning that magnifies the danger and increases the probability of widespread copycat suicide pandemics.
While most recently researched by Masoudi, A. (2009) in The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide, published in the Public Library of Science, the phenomenon of increased suicides has occurred in several countries including Austria, Germany, Japan, and Taiwan following mass publicizing of celebrity suicides.
The question that naturally arises is what can be done about it? The answer is obviously one of new media guidelines that restrict dissemination and glorification of suicides in general, and celebrity suicides in particular. This is Masoudi’s conclusion and it is one that bears much weight.
But for parents, siblings, friends and educators, media guidelines governing reporting of suicides – if and when they are implemented – aren’t enough. Much more needs to be done to help prevent copycat suicide. Let’s look at some of the contributing factors of copycat (and other) suicide and what may be done to combat them.
Media Assign Celebrity Status
When an up-and-coming pop star appears on the music scene, or a camera-friendly sports figure assumes more prominence due to athletic prowess, exploits on- and off-field, etc., the media not only eat it up, but they perpetuate coverage. More is necessarily better, with the result that before long, the previously little-known individual is accorded increasingly greater media coverage and, therefore, celebrity status.
There are minor celebrities, mid-level celebrities, mega-power celebrities and celebrities who are past their prime or have fallen out of status. No matter what stage the celebrity is in, however, if they commit suicide, they’ll leap to the top of the media coverage for as long as the story garners interest.
To counteract overemphasis on the prestige of celebrity, parents, educators and others can discuss the importance of family and personal values, the value of integrity and honor as opposed to instant fame. Grounding in what really matters may go a long way toward blunting the unnatural impact of celebrity.
Media’s Insatiable Appetite for Blood
In the news business, tabloids and entertainment coverage, the old saying, “If it bleeds, it leads” is the name of the game. Nothing sells like blood, and the gorier the better, it seems. Take any newspaper or TV news programming and examine how much space or time is devoted to coverage of murders, disasters, calamities – and celebrity suicides. The negative stories far outweigh the positive, although from time to time the producers will mandate some soft news coverage in an attempt to provide balance. Still, the salacious and the violent will always surface. Why? Because it sells, attracts viewers, increases awareness of the brand that is the media outlet.
In an endless round of can-you-top-this, competing networks and media organizations pound and pummel every angle of the stories, especially celebrity suicides. No detail is too small or unimportant to divulge. There’s no respect for privacy of the family of the celebrity suicide as reporters camp out and hound the survivors, canvass friends, former acquaintances, loved ones, employers – even the deceased’s service employees such as gardeners, maids, dog walkers and the like.
To the viewer or reader of such exacting details of the celebrity suicide – how it was done, what the celebrity said, did, ate, wore, etc., in the immediate hours or days prior to the suicide, their supposed state of mind, whether or not drugs and/or alcohol (or both) were involved, ad infinitum – such social learning exacts a toll. To the more susceptible individuals, those who are depressed, under the influence of drugs, or somehow vulnerable in other ways and are similar in gender or nationality (or dialect, intellectual or other similarities) to the celebrity suicide, the social learning becomes even more critical.
How can parents, educators and others counteract the media’s insatiable appetite for blood, particularly with respect to celebrity suicide? Again, deliberate discussion of values is appropriate, especially the value of human life. Religious convictions may come into play, depending on the family or individual’s belief set. Limiting TV news viewing is another recommendation, as well as prohibiting tabloid publications in the home or environment.
Pre-emptive Measures to Counter Copycat Suicide
Still, the news is inescapable. After all, there’s still the Internet and banners and non-stop coverage of every detail that emerges from autopsies, police investigations, coverage of fans mourning, and so on.
Here are some pre-emptive measures to counter copycat suicide:
• In schools, educators should have school counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses and others who are accredited in suicide prevention and who are dedicated to reducing the influence of suicide and suicidal behaviors in today’s school-age youth.
• Pamphlets, booklets, books and other resources are available for parents, consumers, suicide survivors through the American Association of Suicidology (//www.suicidology.org/web/guest/home). There are also links to other websites and organizations such as Suicide Anonymous and The Lifeline Gallery.
• Videos that are recommended by the American Association of Suicidology (//www.suicidology.org/web/guest/home) can be shown during school assemblies or classes or to other appropriate audiences. Some of the recommended videos include:
o Reaching Out – A 21-minute educational DVD appropriate for high school youth with clear and well-presented suicide prevention messages. There is no glamorization of suicidal behavior and no stigma attached to suicide survivors or attempters. There is also a 13-minute simulation for school counselors to use. For information and purchase, go to www.choices2.com
o A Cry For Help – For middle and high school age youth, this 22-minute video describes effective suicide prevention skills. Order online at www.paracletepress.com
o A Life Saved – This 10-minute documentary-style video tells the true story of three boys who performed a suicide intervention after they had just completed a suicide prevention unit, “Lifelines: A School-Based Response to Youth Suicide.” Printed guidelines to aid discussion are also included. A companion video, Suicide: A Guide to Prevention, Second Edition, is part of the Lifelines student lessons, appropriate for grades 8 through 12. Both videos are available at The Noodlehead Network, www.noodlehead.com or by calling 1-800-639-5680.
o Depression: On the Edge – Featuring a number of presenters, including depressed youth, psychologists, and members of the rock band Third Eye Blind, this video, appropriate for high school youth, comes with a discussion guide and lesson plan. Produced by In The Mix, a PBS weekly program for teens, the video can be shown in segments without losing overall value. To order, go to www.pbs.org or call 1-800-597-9448.
o Never Enough – Appropriate for high school and college students and their parents, this video, developed with guidance from child psychologist Dr. Kirk Wolfe, emphasizes help-seeking skills, does not glamorize suicide or suicidal behaviors and the hero is the helper, not the suicidal person. The accompanying school-based suicide awareness program called RESPONSE is also recommended. To order, contact ColumbiaCare Services, Inc., 1-541-607-7322.
o The Truth About Suicide – This 26-minute video, produced for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), is appropriate for high school and college students. It does not glamorize suicide or suicidal behavior, does not stigmatize suicide attempters, survivors or those who have died by suicide. It shows clear and well-presented suicide prevention messages and includes effective suicide intervention and help-seeking skills. It should be combined with instruction and role-playing for maximum impact. Order from www.afsp.org or call 1-888-333-AFSP.
Know Suicide Warning Signs
Copycat suicide, as well as suicide initiated due to other influences, is almost always preceded by warning signs. Although suicide intenders give definite warnings about their intentions, many times those closest to them don’t recognize the signs or don’t know what to do about them. Be vigilant about such warning signs in loved ones, friends, schoolmates, in the workplace and elsewhere.
Presented by the American Society of Suicidology, located at //www.suicidology.org/web/guest/home, the warning signs are easily remembered by the phrase: Is Path Warm?
Suicide Prevention Resource Center
Other ways to raise awareness and help prevent copycat and other suicides is to get involved with state-level resources. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) is a project within the Education Development Center Health and Human Development Programs and is supported by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The SPRC website, //www.sprc.org/stateinformation/index.asp supports state efforts around suicide prevention. Visitors can use the pages as a starting point to learn more information about suicide prevention efforts and resources by choosing a state from the drop-down list or clicking on states in a map.
Resource materials on various topics of suicide, suicide prevention and mental health are available at the SPRC online library, //library.sprc.org/.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
For immediate help in a crisis – whether you are the person with suicidal thoughts or you are concerned about someone who may be considering suicide – call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. The lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. Your call will be immediately routed to the crisis center nearest to you.
Remember that it’s never okay to ignore someone’s comments about wanting to kill themselves. Such statements are not idle threats, but a plea for help that must be recognized and attended to. This is especially true if the person making the comments has depression or another mental disorder, is intoxicated, taking drugs, or behaving recklessly or impulsively. Be particularly vigilant if there has been a celebrity suicide, especially if that person is one that your loved one or friend emulates, looks up to or follows on a regular basis.
When in doubt, call a suicide prevention lifeline or go to the American Association of Suicidology (//www.suicidology.org/web/guest/home) or other suicide prevention websites and get more information on how to help prevent suicide – copycat or otherwise.
In summary, the dangers of copycat suicide are very real and difficult to combat. But with increasing public awareness through educational efforts aimed at all audiences, a call for media to exercise prudence in reporting suicide, vigilance on the part of everyone to be alert for warning signs of suicide, and re-establishment of sound family and personal moral values, a definite forward attack against copycat suicide can be mounted. Individuals and groups working together can exert and promote positive influences on today’s youth, who are especially vulnerable to mass media coverage of celebrity suicides. In the final analysis, the messages that need to get out are ones that encourage help-seeking and positive behaviors, as well as family and community involvement.
Will the dangers of copycat suicide ever go away? While it’s not likely anytime soon, it is possible to diminish the dangers by providing information-rich educational and promotional materials, fostering discussion and encouraging continued commitment to suicide prevention efforts at the local, state and federal levels.