What to Know About the Study Linking Robin Williams' Death to an Increase in Suicides


Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

A study released on Wednesday found in the four months following Robin Williams’ death, there was a 10 percent increase in suicides.

This data analysis comes more than three years since the beloved comedian took his own life in August 2014. During an autopsy it was discovered he had been struggling with Lewy body dementia, and while suicide isn’t a common outcome of this type of dementia, depression is. Williams was also open about his past struggles with depression and addiction.

According to the author of the study, widespread media coverage could have played a part in the spike of suicides following Williams’ death.

Although numbers like this can be alarming, and any spike in the suicide rate needs to be taken seriously, here are some things to keep in mind as we process this new information.

1. Suicide contagion only accounts for 5 percent of all suicide deaths.

While it’s tragic when one event is correlated with a cluster of suicides, this phenomenon doesn’t account for most suicides. In fact — between 1 percent and 5 percent of teen suicides occur as suicide contagions, meaning an exposure to a suicide increased the rate of suicide death or suicide behaviors. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to prevent suicide clusters, but it does mean preventing suicide goes beyond understanding one spiking data set. Numbers like this are important to know — but they also give us a narrow look into the suicide problem overall.

“I think it’s important to at least note that people aren’t going to kill themselves in droves when we see something in the media,” Dese’Rae L. Stage, founder of Live Through This and a suicide attempt survivor herself, told The Mighty. “I think people need to know that this is a public health problem, and it’s been a public health problem for decades. We can’t only pay attention to it when a celebrity we love takes their own life.”

2. The media can do a better job reporting on suicide.

That being said, after a high profile suicide, media coverage does have an impact on those struggling — and it’s important for journalists to get it right. Major publications continually ignore the reporting on suicide guidelines and share unnecessary and harmful details such as method and location where the suicide occurred. According to Ohio University’s Suicide Reporting Guidelines, “Celebrity deaths by suicide have a strong potential to contribute to suicide contagion due to frequency and depth of reporting, as well as the likelihood that the public feels they can identify with such well-known individuals.”

Some important guidelines journalists need to keep in mind when covering suicide include:

Cover the story in a non-sensationalistic, sensitive way that respects the individual who died by suicide and those surviving this painful loss.

Avoid single-cause explanations. Certain events or factors can precipitate a suicide, but there are typically multiple underlying causes.

Include the message that those recovering from a suicide attempt or loss can find support and effective treatments for depression.

3. Despite Williams’ death, the suicide rates have been rising – and they have been for a while now.

Although the spike in the suicide rate after Williams’ death is notable — the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has been rising for more than a decade. When asked about the study, Stage said her first response was, “Why aren’t we discussing the fact that suicide rates rise every year anyway?”

For example, the study points out that the spike after Williams’ death especially affected men ages 30 to 44, but middle-aged men have the highest suicide rate regardless. Without more information, it’s hard to conclude if the increase in its entirety was directly related to Williams.

“We’ve known for quite a while for men in their middle age, the suicide rate has been rising,” Chris Maxwell, communications coordinator for the American Association of Suicidology, told The Mighty. “To see an increase like this is concerning, but we can’t make a one-to-one causation.”

He said while the media likes making stories out of these kinds of findings, it’s important to not focus on one event as a potential cause of an increase in suicides. Not only does it simplify the cause of suicide — it may simplify how we search for solutions. Glen Coppersmith, CEO and founder of Qntfy, a company that started OurDataHelps, said it’s hard to implement change from data based on one instance, released after a three-year delay.

Wicked problems like the rate of suicides will require many diverse partial solutions, rather than a single silver bullet solution,” he told The Mighty in an email, continuing:

Many of the solutions that the field works on can be measured and analyzed with evidence from trials and small scale experiments, allowing relatively quick interpretation of effectiveness. However, the impact of policy changes in the county-, state-, or federal-level are much harder to measure because of the delay in getting the aggregated number of deaths by suicide. In many cases, getting approximate numbers quickly would be more helpful to inform policy-makers than accurate numbers two years delayed (as the current system is set up to do).

4. This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t report on suicide at all.

Maxwell pointed out that during the time the suicide rate spiked following Williams’ death, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased as well. He sees this as a positive thing because it means despite some sensationalistic and harmful coverage, resources were getting in front of more people. A study published two years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide found there was also a significant increase in suicide crisis calls after his death, paired with media reporting and community outreach efforts in Seattle (where he was based). In the study, the lack of suicide contagion after Cobian’s death is connected to these efforts.

But a celebrity doesn’t have to die for a positive spike like this to happen. During the VMAs and the Grammy’s, Logic’s performance of his hit suicide prevention song “1-800-273-8255” led to an increase of calls to the lifeline. Talking about suicide doesn’t increase the chances of someone taking their life, and we don’t need to wait for someone to die to have these conversations, or to reach out to our communities.

While focusing less on the details of a suicide — and more on resources and stories of hope — might decrease the number of suicides that occur after a high-profile suicide, this is only one potential, partial-answer to a complicated problem we have a despairing lack of funding and research to solve. People who are suicidal need more than responsible reporting. They need resources, support and understanding. Studies like this are only one part of that story.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Lead image via Wikimedia Commons


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