The US lost two prominent figures this week. Designer Kate Spade died on Tuesday in what authorities have ruled a suicide, then celebrity chef and television globe-trotter Anthony Bourdain’s reported suicide came just three days later.
Following these two tragic events, some experts have expressed concern about suicide contagion, which can happen after the death of a celebrity or person in one’s familial or social circle. According to the US Department of Health and Human services, “direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”
Psychiatrist and neurochemist John Mann, who studies the causes of depression and suicide at Columbia University, told Business Insider that he is well aware of that risk.
“Contagion is a real concern, and we worry about that especially when it’s a public figure with a highly publicized suicide,” he said. “Two famous people committing suicide within a few days of each other makes one think about, was one aware of the other and did that have any effect?”
Experts don’t all agree on a working definition of suicide contagion, and there’s a strong debate about whether the term should be used at all. But here’s what we know.
Clusters of suicides have been observed among young people
A study of Canadian teenagers in 2013 found that the youngest among them (12- and 13-year-olds) were the most at risk of attempting or thinking of attempting suicide after the death of a classmate. This was especially true for kids who’d lived through “previous stressful life events,” the researchers wrote. Whether the teens knew the person who died personally wasn’t important — a finding that suggests exposure to irresponsible media coverage of suicides can be harmful for the very young (among others).
Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, has written and spoken extensively about the dangers of suicide contagion. In a 1990 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Gould and four co-authors found that so-called “suicide clusters” seem to happen mostly among teenagers and young adults. But they noted the phenomenon can occur at other ages as well.
Because of those age-specific risks, concerns about suicide contagion were raised after the release of Netflix’s series “13 Reasons Why.” In the finale of the show’s first season, a teenage girl takes her own life in graphic detail — a portrayal that contradicts guidelines from mental-health experts about how to depict suicide in a way that doesn’t encourage others to follow suit.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association after “13 Reasons Why” came out last year found that Google searches for the phrase “how to commit suicide” were 26% higher in the two weeks after the show’s release than would have been expected. Searches for “commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” were 18% and 9% higher, respectively.
Factors that may contribute to suicide contagion
Mann emphasized that not glamorizing suicide is important in any news coverage of, conversations about, or fictional portrayals of suicide.
Gould has also written about the ways that media can have an impact. She suggests that showing “rewards” of suicide, like a grieving family member or partner, can foster revenge motivations, especially among angry and dejected youth.
“There was a kind of romanticization, and at the core of the story was this idea that you can kill yourself and be dead and yet not really be dead,” he said.
Gould has also noted other approaches that don’t help, including repeated or sensationalized news coverage of the same story, framing suicide as stemming from a single issue (like losing a job or partner), and descriptions of suicide as something that is “unavoidable” with insinuations that “someone will be next.”
Both researchers — Gould and Mann — have also stressed the need to highlight that suicide is preventable, suicidal thoughts don’t last forever, and people can feel better after getting help from trained professionals.
“The most effective prevention has been improving the diagnosis and recognition of depression — by the public, and by primary care physicians,” Mann said.
While only a trained professional can diagnose mental health issues, listening to a friend, or giving someone the opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling in a non-judgmental, open way can mean a lot. One 2017 study from the Journal of the American Association of Suicidology found that nearly 80% of people who called the free National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) said a follow-up call from an operator saved their life, and 90% said the call kept them safe.
Experts at the CDC say there is more everyone can do to prevent suicide and reduce stigma, and celebrities like Debra Messing have been moved to share their own struggles with mental health using the hashtag #mystory, and to rally for better, more affordable and accessible mental health coverage for all Americans.
According to CDC data, Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths come as a worrisome trend continues to unfold across age groups: suicide rates in the US have risen 28% in less than 20 years.
“I’m a big Anthony Bourdain fan as a lot of people are,” Mann said. “I’m human, I’m shocked, and tremendously saddened by what’s happened.”