“Suicide outbreaks,” “suicide epidemics,” or “copycat suicides”—when multiple suicides occur in a community in a short period of time, usually among teenagers and young adults, are somewhat of a mystery, and lead to the question: why does a suicide lead to an “outbreak” of others in some communities but not in others? To help answer that question, researchers at Columbia, led by Dr. Madelyn Gould, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry, examined the influence of media coverage in the initiation of suicide clusters. Findings are published in Lancet Psychiatry.
Although research has shown that press reports are associated with suicide spikes nationally, no study had analyzed how they might influence suicide clusters. Dr. Gould and colleagues examined data for the years 1988-1996 looking at news reporting in various communities around the country in the aftermath of the first suicide of a cluster and comparing this to coverage in communities that saw just one suicide. They found that there were significantly more news stories in cluster communities than in isolated suicide communities, suggesting an association between reporting on suicides and suicide clusters. Newspapers in the cluster communities gave more prominent and detailed coverage of suicidal individuals, such as front-page placement, photography, headlines containing the word “suicide,” specification of the method used, and a more detailed description of the person and how he or she committed the act. The authors controlled the study so that nothing about the suicides they examined would have led to varying coverage in the comparison groups — such as how graphic or public a suicide was.
Although the study does not prove causality, the authors suggest theories for why media coverage could influence suicides. Repeated coverage may normalize suicide in the eyes of young, vulnerable people, according to one theory, or it may “prime” latent thoughts in already suicidal youth, according to another theory.
Media guidelines on how to cover suicide, which have been published by the World Health Organization, among other sources, can be helpful. “In light of the extensive use of social media by teens, we hope our current findings will stimulate research on social media’s impact on suicidal behavior. We would also recommend our suggestions for responsible reporting about suicidal individuals be applied by all who generate suicide-related stories via social media, which would include teens, as well as media professionals,” the authors say.