Study: Suicides spiked 10 percent after Robin Williams's death

Study: Suicides spiked 10 percent after Robin Williams's death
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The number of suicides reported in the United States jumped nearly 10 percent in the months following Robin Williams’s death in August 2014, according to new data released on Wednesday.

There were 18,690 suicides in the four months following the Oscar-winning actor’s death, 1,841 more than would normally be expected for the same time period, researchers from Columbia University found.

“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,” said David Fink, one of the contributors to the report.

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Although all age groups experienced an uptick in suicides, males aged 30 to 44 were particularly affected.

“Williams’ death may have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population, especially middle-aged men in despair, to move from suicidal ideation to attempt,” Fink said.

There was a 32-percent increase in suicide by suffocation in the five months after Williams killed himself using that method. The incidence of suicide by all other means increased by three percent.

“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,” Fink said.

In the report, the researchers noted that the effects of celebrity suicides have led the World Health Organization to establish media guidelines for reporting on them.

“The extent to which these guidelines were followed after the death of Mr. Williams, however, is questionable, and as such, we examined suicide incidence in the United States by month surrounding the time frame of Mr. Williams’ death,” the researchers wrote.

It’s important to consider the risks that come with reporting about a celebrity’s death through social media, Fink noted.

He added that when Kurt Cobain famously killed himself in 1994, before the advent of social media, there was minimal change in suicide rates.

Lorna Fraser, a media adviser with the British anti-suicide group the Samaritans, told the BBC that the new study “builds on a strong body of research evidence” showing that “irresponsible or overly detailed depictions of suicide can have a devastating impact.”

"In the case of celebrities, the potential for someone at risk to make an emotional connection and over-identify with them is greater, in some cases even to interpret their death as affirmation that they could take their own life,” Fraser said.