Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Suicides Increased for Months After Death of Robin Williams, Report Suggests

In the five months following the death by suicide of the popular actor and comedian Robin Williams on August 11, 2014, there was a nearly 10% increase in the number of people who died by suicide in the United States, according to epidemiologists at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Although the uptick in suicides was seen across gender and age groups, men and those aged 30 to 44 had the greatest increases in suicides, according to the report published today in PLOS One.

“Research has shown that the number of suicides increases following a high-profile celebrity suicide, but 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-hours news cycle,” David S. Fink, M.P.H., M.Phil., of Columbia’s Department of Epidemiology said in a press release.

For the study, Fink and colleagues examined monthly suicide count data and monthly suicide rates from January 1999 to December 2015 by sex, age, and method, collected in a CDC database known as CDC Wonder. The researchers used a statistical method that took into consideration seasonal suicide patterns to estimate the number of suicides that took place between August and December 2014.

The model estimated that 16,849 suicides would occur from August to December 2014; however, 18,690 suicides—an excess of 1,841 suicides (9.85% increase)—were reported. Those aged 30 to 44 showed the greatest increase in suicides at 12.9%.

“[C]ompared to all other methods of suicide, the difference between the observed and predicted number of suicides was greatest and most consistent among suffocation suicides,” the authors wrote. “Specifically, we observed a 32.3% increase in the number of suffocation suicides in the five months that followed Williams’ death, compared to a 3.1% increase in the number of suicides from all other methods combined (for example, cutting/piercing, poisoning, firearm, falls, all other methods), albeit we found a higher than expected number of poisoning suicides and firearm suicides in August and September, respectively.”

The authors continued, “Although we cannot determine with certainty that the excess suicides were attributable to news media reports on Williams’ death, Williams’ death might have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population (for example, middle-aged men in despair) to move from suicidal ideation to attempt. … Suicide remains a central threat to public health, and high-profile celebrity suicides will continue to occur; preventing such effects will require substantial resources and training, as well as creative responses to emerging media.”

“The potent effects of celebrity suicide reported in this manuscript underscore the need for the media to follow guidelines for reporting suicides,” Maria A. Oquendo, M.D., Ph.D., APA past president and professor and chair of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told Psychiatric News by email. “Refraining from glamorizing the person in this context and emphasizing the fact that suicide is one of the most devastating sequelae of psychiatric conditions are essential.”

There are multiple resources on points to consider when reporting on suicide, including “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” developed in collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Associated Press Managing Editors, and the CDC, among others.

(Image: iStock/anouchka)


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