The devastating news of Anthony Bourdain’s death, confirmed June 8 as a suicide, is rapidly reverberating around the globe. It came just three days after another New Yorker and celebrity, fashion designer Kate Spade, also died by suicide.
While our natural inclination is to share news of these tragedies, there’s a real danger that all this publicity is causing more suicides – and it may be only be getting worse.
Let’s be clear. Talking about suicide as a public health crisis and raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of mental health treatment – these are good things. Instead, the danger has to do with the way suicide gets reported in the media.
Too often – and I have seen this already in some of the early reports on Bourdain’s death – reporting inadvertently includes information that may trigger a vulnerable individual.
Headlines sensationalizing the death as a suicide, storylines that oversimplify the complex causes of suicide, or reporting that provides details on means and manner of the actual act – these are examples of damaging reporting. On the flip side, stories may leave out listing resources where people can locate professional treatment, information that could be vital to helping a reader or listener in crisis.
Although these measures may sound small, they are meaningful.
If you are having a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text HOME to 741741, or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
What does the research show?
A bevy of research studies have repeatedly shown that media coverage of suicides is closely correlated with documented increases in suicidal behaviors.
A study published earlier this year in the journal PLOS ONE found that in the months after another celebrity suicide, comedian Robin Williams, there were approximately 1,800 more suicides in the United States than would have normally been expected for the period. Even more telling, though: many of these “excess suicides” occurred by suffocation in middle-aged men, closely paralleling Williams’ death.
Research by Madelyn Gould and colleagues published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry indicates graphic descriptions of the suicide, as well as other features such as news headlines containing the word suicide, are statistically linked to subsequent outbreaks or clusters of suicide among teenagers.
Are teens at risk?
Gould’s research was conducted before the rise of Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat. And this leads me to wonder how much more danger there is nowadays as our teenagers absorb and spread the news about Bourdain’s suicide on social media, even as I write these words.
Sadly, we need go back only to last year to the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why as evidence of my concern. The show, which many teens binge-watched, focused on the suicide of a high schooler and provided virtually no information on crisis resources and included a scene explicitly depicting the suicide.
So what happened? After the Netflix release, Google searches related to suicide spiked, with about one million more searches than would be expected. While some indicated heightened awareness, many more were foreboding such as “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself.”
Things may be getting worse. In a study published in the journal Health Communication, Michele Abbott and colleagues examined 398 U.S. newspaper articles about suicide, coding each for how well it conformed to established guidelines on reporting about suicide. They concluded there was a downward trend in the quality of reporting.
One might think that the national media – for all their resources and exposure – would be doing a better job. Here again, though, the data are depressing. A British study by Michael Utterson found that local media actually did better than national sources in reporting responsibly on suicide.
Why does it happen?
It’s not fully clear why irresponsible media reporting about suicide is linked to subsequent suicide. According to one of the leading theories, acquired capability – that is the ability to actually go through with the painful and horrific act of deliberate self-harm – is one of the key components to suicide.
When the media provide details on the suicide itself — the methods and means to end one’s life, the details leading up to and around the suicide — it may contribute to a person acquiring that deadly capacity.
Some naysayers will say these measures won’t make a difference. They contend a suicidal person will end up killing themselves anyway. If not after seeing a story on Anthony Bourdain’s death, then another day.
The reality is that suicide is often impulsive, and if a person can get through a brief period of crisis, they will survive. In a study of 82 people who were hospitalized following a suicide attempt, half said they acted within 10 minutes of first starting to think about attempting. Long-term follow-up studies also consistently find that over 90 percent of suicide attempters do not go on to die by suicide.
And an Israeli study found that when a policy was changed such that soldiers left their firearms on base during weekend leave, suicides decreased by 40 percent, without an uptick in suicides on weekdays.
What can we do about it?
Bourdain’s death is part of growing trend, and the need for action now is clear. In a sad twist of timing, the Centers for Disease Control released a new report on suicide on the same day that news of Bourdain’s death emerged. The report, which examined suicide trends between 1999 and 2016, finds significant increases in suicide in nearly every state.
There are clear, easily available guidelines on how the media can do a better job reporting on suicide deaths. They have been developed and vetted by widely respected organizations ranging from the World Health Organization to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
It is standard practice in journalism to offer a trigger warning before a story containing graphic descriptions of sexual assault or other violence. It needs to be standard for stories about suicide to do the same. Even better is to provide suicide prevention resources. I have seen this being done more in print journalism, but we still have a long way to go, particularly in broadcast journalism.
There is a reason to be hopeful, though. Take 13 Reasons Why, which seems to have learned a lesson after much public outcry. In its second season released last month, episodes are preceded by a trigger warning and the credits include help-seeking resources.
Ultimately, spending the extra time following these guidelines or making an on-air announcement will make a difference. Because the only thing more tragic than Bourdain’s death would be more of the same.
Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University.