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Celebrities and Suicide: What is the ripple effect of suicide?

Published on 15 August 2018|
2 min read

In the last year, some of our most beloved public figures have died by suicide.  Does this affect us more than we realize?

by Emily Mary Chin, Carrybeans

The death of Margot Kidder has just recently been ruled as a suicide by a Montana coroner’s office.  Kidder first found fame starring opposite Christopher Reeve in the early Superman films.  She was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid-90’s and had since been a strong advocate of mental health issues.

Despite that, suicide still found her, as it did Chester Bennington, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade within the last year.

Why does it happen?

Anthony Bourdain’s death didn’t just surprise those personally close to him, but the whole world at large.  When an article came out after, listing all the times Bourdain had made public references to killing himself, his girlfriend, Asia Argento, claims to have been shocked by the news.

I never knew about this obsession of his.  He never told me.

– Asia Argento on Anthony Bourdain’s ‘obsession’ with suicide

But further inspection shows that, in reality, there were many telltale signs.  For one, the article mentioned above shows that he has made regular references to suicide, in particular hanging, his eventual chosen method of death.  For two, after his first marriage ended, he was regularly suicidal, by his own admission.  And for three, he has long struggled with depression, addiction and narcissistic personality disorder.

Kate Spade’s suicide—occurring just days before Bourdain’s—also came as a big surprise to many.  This is especially so, taking into account the quirky and vibrant aesthetic that her eponymous brand exudes.  However, she, too, had her own struggles with depression and anxiety.

The Kate Spade brand is famously bright and quirky // Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The news of Chester Bennington’s suicide shocked many, including his own family and friends.  However, Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, had long struggled with depression and addiction.  His close friend and singer of Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, had also killed himself just two months prior.  And it was on his birthday that Bennington chose to kill himself.  Because of this, some believe Bennington’s suicide was inspired by Cornell.

I can’t imagine a world without you in it.

– Excerpt from a letter Chester Bennington wrote to Chris Cornell after his death

What happens after?

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a 10% rise in suicide rate in the four months following Robin Williams’ suicide.  The increase was particularly high among males between 30 to 44 years old, an age group similar to that of Williams’.  Many of the victims also chose strangulation as their method, using the same method that Williams did.

Another study shows a similar spike of 12% in suicide rates in the month following Marilyn Monroe’s suicide as well.  Also similar to Williams, the year following her death showed a particularly large increase among females within her age group of 30 to early 40 years old.

Marilyn Monroe is a pop culture icon, largely due to the romanticised nature of her life and death // Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But it’s not just real life occurrences that are contagious.  After the premiere of 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix TV show that depicted the graphic suicide of a teenage girl, the following three weeks showed a 19% increase in internet searches related to suicide.  Queries such as, ‘how to commit suicide’ and ‘how to kill yourself’ showed the biggest upturn.

The media contagion

Suicides occurring on the public sphere tend to attract copycat occurrences.  The dose effect states that the higher a suicide’s exposure is to media reporting, the greater the copycat effect.

Robin Williams’ death was widely publicised all around the world through print media, television segments, and social media platforms as well.  Headlines on the incident were sensational and used direct references to ‘suicide’ and ‘hanging’, referring to the method in which he chose to kill himself.

This goes against WHO’s media guidelines on responsible reporting, which was put in place in hopes of lowering the dose effect on suicide rates.  The guidelines discourage media reporting that places suicide too prominently or repetitively.  They also discourage explicit description of the method used as well as sensational language and headlines.

The dose effect works similarly in the case of 13 Reasons Why.  It set the record for being the most tweeted show of 2017 in the weeks following its premiere.  The show has since received much praise for opening up a tough conversation and getting people to talk more openly about mental health issues.  However, the show has also garnered criticism for romanticising suicide and sending an indirect message that suicide is a legitimate course of action when dealing with intense emotions or interpersonal situations.

Empathy and understanding

There is no one way to prevent suicide, nor is there one key message or method that will steer society away from it forever.  13 Reasons Why, while well-intentioned, may have created just as many problems as it may have prevented.  While they did a good job of opening up the conversation, they dropped the ball in guiding the conversation down a healthy and productive path.  But the conversation is still necessary.

When you approach a conversation as heavy as suicide, you have a responsibility to also guide the conversation.  And WHO’s media guidelines is a good benchmark for figuring out the boundaries of where that conversation should go.  With that, we should able to gauge when the conversation goes from healthy to gratuitous.

Suicide rates in Malaysia have risen by 60% since the 1960’s and they continue to move upwards.  And we can expect that they will continue to rise for as long as our society fails to talk about the issue.  We can no longer afford to avoid the conversation.  So let’s, instead, figure out what we want the conversation to be.

Featured Image Credit: Thought Catalog

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