Although suicide may seem to be the ultimate isolated act, researchers are increasingly understanding that one suicide can mean an increased risk of others.
Researchers have been particularly interested in how the death of a celebrity and the subsequent media coverage could impact suicide rates.
On Aug. 11, 2014, Williams died by suicide after spending decades in the public eye as an actor and comedian.
In the days following his death by asphyxiation, news channels, newspapers, and websites provided an extensive amount of coverage, including details about the suicide itself.
David S. Fink, MPH, a predoctoral fellow and PhD candidate from the department of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said he wanted to see if there was a change in suicide rates after Williams’ death and the intense media coverage.
Fink said past research had shown that suicide rates often increase after a high-profile celebrity suicide.
“This is the first incidence that we’ve had a celebrity suicide in America that was such a widely known character since Marilyn Monroe,” Fink told Healthline.
Rising suicide risk
The researchers studied past data about the average number of suicides. After Williams’ death, they looked at the number of suicides reported in the four months after Williams’ death.
They also looked at the amount of media time devoted to covering Williams’ death and if these stories adhered to suggested guidelines for how to cover suicides responsibly.
“This is the first study, to our knowledge, that has examined the effect of a high-profile suicide on the general population within the modern era of the 24-hour news cycle,” Fink said in a statement.
They found that the number of suicides was nearly 10 percent higher for those four months than what would normally be expected.
They also found that there was a 32 percent increase in suffocation suicides. This is significantly higher than the increase in other forms of suicide methods, which rose just 3 percent combined.
In total, there were 1,841 more suicides than what might be expected normally. The greatest increase was found in men between the ages of 30 and 44.
Fink and his co-authors are careful to point out that the study didn’t find that Williams’ death definitively led to more suicides. Instead, it just found that the two were correlated.
However, Fink said for people who might already have suicidal ideation, the death of a celebrity can be another risk factor.
“One of the takeaways form this paper is that a death that someone relates to, such as a celebrity suicide, can be a trigger for some people,” Fink said. “It’s important for clinicians to keep that in mind and also friends and family members to take warnings seriously.”
The idea of media coverage leading to an increased risk of suicide isn’t a new concept. It actually goes back centuries.
In 1974, one sociologist dubbed it the “Werther effect” after a novel titled “The Sorrows of the Young Werther.” In this fictional story, the protagonist dies by suicide.
At the time, authorities believed the novel led other young people to die by suicide. The book was even banned in some countries.
Carl Tishler, PhD, an adjunct associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University, said researchers have been studying this effect for decades.
“It also opens a door for people who are thinking about suicide and makes it more legitimate for them to do it,” Tishler explained
Tishler said this doesn’t mean a star’s biggest fan is at risk, but more likely a person already in psychological distress who identifies with that celebrity.
“Probably a million people loved Robin Williams,” Tishler said. “There have to be some extremely vulnerable people who are there and who are vulnerable to copying or acting on their impulse to die by suicide.”
He said in rarer cases, some people may want to “join” the deceased.
Joel Dvoskin, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Arizona, said the study was “extremely well-done.”
“They were careful about acknowledging that you can only infer causation from correlation, but the data is pretty compelling,” Dvoskin told Healthline.
While other suicide “clusters” have been seen — particularly among teenagers, when one student’s death may precipitate others — Dvoskin said celebrities have a wider reach.
“Their popularity is largely determined by the extent that people can relate to them,” he said. “They present this accessibility.”
A celebrity’s death by suicide “makes it seem like a more realistic exit strategy,” he said.