Media Reporting of Celebrity Suicides

Robin Williams was one of the best known, admired celebrities in the world. He was a multitalented entertainer and a multimillionaire. He appeared in 68 movies and won an Academy Award and multiple Grammy Awards.

After 40 years in the entertainment industry, his death at age 63 was an unexpected tragedy. Suicide is never a ‘good death.’ It is always shocking and disturbing.

Some suggest his self-indulgent lifestyle caused his demise. While it may be true ‘a life in pursuit of the excessive gratification of one’s desires’ is not the best way to nurture lasting relationships, there were many other factors that contributed to his self-destruction. These included messy lawsuits, financial difficulties, and major health problems.

His weight loss was severe, his memory was failing him, and his physical movements compromised. He was fearful and anxious, suffered panic attacks and worried that his audiences didn’t love him anymore.

High profile celebrity suicides are difficult to understand. They involve people who have known success and have a lot going for them. Perhaps we imagine them to be living in a bubble, shielded from the everyday struggles we encounter. We may think them immune from things like depression and anxiety.

It is often only after a tragic episode that we become aware of some of the challenges the celebrity may have been dealing with. Even so, we will never be able to explain why they died by suicide. Suicide is complex and can’t be reduced to a quantifiable number of causal factors.

The recent deaths of American fashion designer Kate Spade and gifted chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain have reminded us that no one is immune from suicide.

The extensive media coverage given to these events does raise some important issues.

The public interest in the stories of celebrities who’ve killed themselves is understandable but how much detail do we need to know?

There are specific media guidelines for reporting a suicide. They include

• Don’t mention suicide in the headlines
• Avoid a detailed description of the method of suicide in the article
• Don’t glorify the act of suicide
• Avoid excessive reporting of the suicide

Yet, the guidelines are difficult to enforce and social media isn’t prepared to encourage such restraint.

Contrary to the guidelines, specific details of Robin Williams’ death were reported by some media outlets.

Social commentator and bestselling author Jennifer Michael Hecht reminds us that media coverage of suicide needs to be responsible. She says,

“Studies have shown that the way we talk about suicide publicly can have astounding consequences. News of one person ending their life can lead to more suicides, especially for people similar to the victim in age and gender.”

Researchers at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the four months following Robin Williams’ death there was a 10% increase in deaths especially among middle-aged men using the method that was described.

Suicide contagion linked to media reporting is described as the dose effect. It means the more exposure to media reporting of suicide, including the number of articles and the prominence of the death, the greater the copycat effect.

Changing the way a suicide is reported in the press can reduce suicides. We must do what we can to hold the media accountable.

One of the positive aspects of the media coverage of celebrity suicides is that it places suicide in the spotlight.

Suicide is often regarded as a taboo subject, not to be discussed openly. But it would be missed opportunity if the media limited their reporting. Regrettably, there is too little talk about suicide and often our conversations are ill-informed.

Although it may be difficult to determine who is at risk of suicide there are approved prevention initiatives that provide a list of the 12 Suicide Warnings Signs. They are

Feeling like a burden
Being isolated
Increased anxiety
Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Increased substance use
Looking for a way to access lethal means
Increased anger or rage
Extreme mood swings
Expressing hopelessness
Sleeping too little or too much
Talking or posting about wanting to die
Making plans for suicide

Anthony Bourdain’s death was a shock to those who knew him well. A friend was quoted as saying,
“No one knew he was struggling in any life-or-death way. No one had a clue.”

Some of his closest friends conceded: “His nerves were shattered a little; his marriage had fallen apart, and he was way, way overworked and overdriven.”

Perhaps the clearest sign of where his mind was at came in an interview he did with People in February where he admitted to contemplating suicide before but said he would ‘at least try to live’ for his daughter, Ariane.

Bourdain said in the interview,

“There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run – why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing…jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth,” he said. “In retrospect, I don’t know that I would do that today – now that I’m a dad or reasonably happy.”

Kat Kinsman runs a website called ‘Chefs with Issues.’ It provides a platform to talk about mental health and the restaurant industry. He says,

“A chief died today. Let’s talk about it.

Anthony Bourdain killed himself. I don’t know why. Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter, because it cannot be undone or make anyone feel any better.

It is painful and shocking and somehow still unreal that someone could have the fame, wealth, respect, admiration, and opportunity that he did, and still not wish to live.”

Media reporting of celebrity suicides generally will include references to family members and those closest to the deceased.

When news of fashion designer Kate Spade’s death was released comment was sought from her husband and business partner, Andy Spade. He said his wife suffered from depression and anxiety and had been seeing a doctor on a regular basis. Police sources said there was a note to her 13-year-old daughter Francis, assuring her that she was not to feel guilty.

Media reporting generally fails to explain the impact of suicide on those who are closest to the deceased.

Gillian Tindall wrote about the loss of her mother to suicide in the Sydney Morning Herald. She says,

“For the grieving family, it is the ultimate rejection of commitment, of responsibility, of love itself. And it inevitably casts its shadow back over the whole life.”

Gillian was 17 when her mother took her life. She recognises that understanding the impact of a suicide on your life takes time. She says,

“It takes half a lifetime to process how you really – really – think about such an event.

Not until I had a young child of my own did I fully understand what a betrayal of love and trust it is for a mother to turn her back in such a way.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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