Celebrity Suicide: 'Clear and Compelling' Contagion Effect

Megan Brooks

March 19, 2020

Media reports of celebrity suicides are associated with a "clear and compelling" increase in suicide rates in the general population, new research shows.

Results from a systematic review and meta-analysis show reports of celebrity suicide were linked to an increase in suicide of up to 18% over the following 1 to 2 months. In addition, reporting the method of suicide was associated with an increase of 18% to 44% in the risk of suicide by the same method.

"This is the most comprehensive summary of research findings on associations between reporting on suicide in news and information media," first author Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, MD, PhD, of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Center for Public Health, Medical University of Vienna, Austria, told Medscape Medical News.

"It suggests that particularly reporting about deaths of celebrities by suicide has a clear and compelling impact on subsequent suicide rates. The association is even stronger for celebrities that have a strong social status in the population," he added.

The study was published online March 18 in BMJ.

Sensational Reporting Still Common

The researchers identified and analyzed 31 relevant studies. They included 20 studies at moderate risk of bias in the main analyses. The studies compared at least one time point before, and up to 2 months after, media reports of death by suicide on television, in print or online news, or in nonfiction books or films.

On average, suicide rates increased by 13% (95% CI, 8% - 18%) over a median of 28 days following media reports of a celebrity death by suicide.

When the media reported the method of celebrity suicide, there was an associated 30% (95% CI, 18% - 44%) increase in deaths by the same method. General reporting of suicide did not appear to be associated with suicide.

Media stories on celebrity suicides might increase suicidal thoughts and contribute to planning suicide using a specific method, the data suggest.

Niederkrotenthaler said media reporting on suicide has improved substantially in several countries where media guidelines for suicide reporting have been developed and implemented in collaboration with media professionals.

"But this does not consistently apply to all reporting instances, and in some world regions sensationalist reporting is still very frequent. The findings highlight that media guidelines for the reporting of suicide need to be widely distributed and implemented," he noted.

"Reporting Can Cost Lives"

In an accompanying editorial, David Gunnell, MBChB, PhD, and Lucy Biddle, PhD, University of Bristol, UK, notes these findings will help give media outlets a "clearer sense of the potential effect of their reporting." 

The authors note that a 13% increase in suicide rate in the general population following media reports of a celebrity suicide is "substantial." In the UK, for example, where 6507 people died by suicide in 2018, a 13% increase would amount to around 70 additional deaths. 

As reported by Medscape Medical News, in the weeks following the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams in 2014, which was widely reported as a suicide by hanging, there was a surge in suicides by this method.

"Suicide is a major and distressing cause of potentially preventable mortality, accounting for over 800,000 deaths worldwide every year," Gunnell told Medscape Medical News, and this new analysis is "a really important contribution to the prevention literature."

"The key message is that journalists, news editors, and social media platforms must carefully consider the costs to population health, and impacts on families and friends, of sensationalist, detailed reporting of these tragic deaths. Reporting of suicide methods is a particular concern. Reporting may cost lives," said Gunnell. 

Although this review showed no apparent increase in the rate of death by suicide following media reports of noncelebrity suicides, "this is not grounds for complacency," Gunnell and Biddle write.

They point to a recent US study published in Lancet Psychiatry, which showed that news reports of suicides can trigger suicide clusters in young people, with a higher risk associated with front page reporting, description of the suicide method, and detailed accounts of the suicide.

The study had no specific funding. Niederkrotenthaler and Gunnell have reported no relevant financial relationships.

BMJ. Published online March 18, 2020. Full text, Editorial

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