Researchers observed a 10% increase in suicides in the months following the death of Robin Williams in 2014, with men and people aged 30 to 44 years experiencing the greatest spike in suicides.
“Recent meta-analysis suggests that, on average, suicides increase by approximately 0.26 per 100,000 population in the weeks following a high-profile celebrity suicide,” David S. Fink, MPH, MPhil, department of epidemiology, Columbia University, and colleagues wrote in PLOS One. “However, there is a paucity of evidence about the effects of a celebrity suicide on population health within the U.S., and no study, to our knowledge, has examined this effect within the modern era of the 24-hours news cycle.”
Although WHO has established media guidelines for reporting a high-profile celebrity death, how well the media followed these guidelines after the death of Robin Williams remains uncertain, according to the researchers. Fink and colleagues performed time-series analysis on U.S. suicide incidence by month following Williams’ death from August to December 2014. Researchers analyzed monthly suicide rates from the CDC from January 1999 to December 2015 as well as global news media reports on suicide and Robin Williams, compared with reports from June 2013 to January 2015. Using a seasonal autoregressive integrated moving averages model, they also calculated expected suicides.
Figure 1. During the months following the death of Robin Williams, suicides increased 9.85% in the U.S., according to researchers.
Analysis showed that normally, 16,849 suicides would be expected from August to December 2014, but 18,690 suicides were reported during this time following Williams' death, indicating an excess of 1,841 cases and a 9.85% increase in suicides. Increases in suicides were consistently observed across gender (males, 9.1%; females, 9.7%) and across all age groups, with those aged 30 to 44 years demonstrating the greatest increase in suicides (12.9%). The difference between the observed and predicted number of suicides was greatest and most consistent among suicide by suffocation compared to all other methods of suicide (32.3% increase vs. 3.1% increase). According to a press release, news media reports that used the terms "suicide" and "dead," and the name "Robin Williams" increased significantly following Williams' death. There were also more online posts in the "SuicideWatch" forum, a suicide support platform on Reddit, and changes in posted content associated with suicidal ideation.
“Although we cannot determine with certainty that these deaths are attributable to the death of Robin Williams, we found both a rapid increase in suicides in August 2014, and specifically suffocation suicides, that paralleled the time and method of Williams’ death, and a dramatic increase in news media reports on suicides and Robin Williams during this same period, suggesting a connection between Williams’ death and the subsequent increase in suicide deaths from August to December 2014," Fink and colleagues wrote. “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.” – by Savannah Demko
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