Robin Williams’ death and copycat suicides

In a previous article we reported about celebrities, as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who committed suicide (Click HERE to read the article). It is widely acknowledged that a celebrity suicide may influence population health, in particular suicides rate may increase in the next weeks due to copycat and Werther effect (Click HERE to know more about Werther Effect), and this may have a varying impact in different populations and cultures.

The role of media communicating the news is very important: the World Health Organization recently published an update in the guidelines “Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals”, where there is a specific section named “Apply particular caution when reporting celebrity suicides” (Click HERE for the Guidelines).

Many articles about the topic were published after Robin Williams’ death, occurred in 2014: this is a good example in order to explain the topic. Robin Williams was a famous actor, with a 35-year career on screen, playing lead roles in different famous films (es: Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire…). The day Williams died, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received the highest number phone calls ever.

A recent open access study published on PLOS One investigates suicides following the death of the actor Robin Williams: using a time-series analysis, researchers reported that suicides observed exceeded expected ones; this was observed across gender and age groups.  

LINK to articleIncrease in suicides the months after the death of Robin Williams in the US

Moreover, on Health Communication Young it was published an article about a survey on how his death influenced searches for information concerning depression, suicide, and mental health. They found, for example, that respondents who sought information about the suicide reported changes in their thoughts about suicide, most often dealing with the difficulty in spotting warning signs and the idea that “it can happen to anyone.”

LINK to the articleTweeting celebrity suicides: Users’ reaction to prominent suicide deaths on Twitter and subsequent increases in actual suicides.

Finally, the relationships between guidelines and news about suicide were assessed in a study performed at the Mental Health University Institute in Quebec by Creed and Whitley. In Canada guidelines and best practice have been recently published to help journalists writing about mental health and suicide. Creed and Whitley tried to relate these norms to the pieces written about Robin Williams’ suicide from major Canadian newspapers: they observed that articles generally followed the evidence-based guidelines when reporting about Williams’ suicide.

LINK to the article: Assessing Fidelity to Suicide Reporting Guidelines in Canadian News Media: The Death of Robin Williams

In conclusion, as described in the WHO guidelines, celebrity suicides are particularly likely to induce copycat suicides: “the effect of a report about a suicide on subsequent suicides is greater when the person described in the story is a celebrity and is held in high regard by the reader or viewer. Particular subgroups in the population (such as young people, people suffering from mental illness, persons with a history of suicidal behaviour or those bereaved by suicide) are particularly vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviour”.

To know more, contact EPA- SSSP e-mail address:

Image from Pixabay

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