Suicide is a tragic outcome in many cases of depression, and suffering teens may be more vulnerable to acting on suicidal thoughts when seeing media coverage of other graphic cases. A new study has shown that death by suicide in teens may spike following news coverage of other suicide cases.
The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry online journal earlier today, looked at 48 teen suicide clusters across the nation between 1988 and 1996. “Cluster” was defined by the study as a group of between three and 11 teen suicides taking place within a period of six months. Findings suggest that local newspaper stories may be responsible for initiating a cluster of copy-cat cases. The first case in a given “cluster” of suicides was usually found to generate a lot more explicitly detailed front-page news coverage as compared to isolated cases of teen suicide.
The research suggests that it is not necessarily the mere fact that a suicide is being reported that may play a role in additional teen suicides, it is how the case is being reported. Sometimes, graphic, overly-dramatic coverage drums up emotional responses in troubled teens that find it relatable, possibly creating a “ripple effect.” These trends in news coverage may be to blame for spikes in teen suicide deaths.
Experts stress that findings cannot conclusively place blame on news coverage, and also emphasize that this phenomenon does not occur in teens where symptoms, thoughts and underlying issues were not already present. In other words, so-called copy-cat cases do not afflict teenagers that are not struggling with depressed feelings and suicidal thoughts in the first place.
It may just be coincidence that this study was released during the first couple of days of May, which has been claimed as national “Mental Health Month” for the past several decades by Mental Health America and other mental health advocacy organizations.
Researchers with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) based in New York City have praised this recent study for its exceptional and thorough design, noting that there have been a vast number of studies examining the same sad phenomenon.
“The more you find the same result, the greater the validity,” said AFSP vice president Jill Harkavy-Friedman.
These study findings also raise assumptions from other researchers that dramatic ripple effects may be made worse by ever-emerging, ever-present social media. Young people are heavy users of new media, which spreads so quickly without regulation that society has coined the term “viral” to describe how rapidly content spreads to such a large group of people.
Whether or not there will eventually be a way to prove that news coverage is a certain cause of copy-cat deaths by suicide in teens or adults, many mental health experts have been advocating for responsible media coverage of these unfortunate cases.
Groups like Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Society for Professional Journalists have long cited research showing that “suicide contagion” can take place when vulnerable people hear about a suicide or suicidal behavior, triggering them. While some characteristics of news coverage may fuel contagion, these groups educate media and the general public about the idea that media coverage can be framed to promote help seeking and education instead of “sensationalist,” dramatic coverage.
Among strategies recommended to journalists to curtail copy-cat clusters are having interviews with suicide prevention experts instead of relying on police or first responders for reports and quotes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 4,600 young people aged 10 to 24 die by suicide every year. Over 150,000 cases end up in the emergency room because of attempts and other self-injuries.
Whether or not a spike in teen suicide deaths can be attributed to news coverage, it is still important for the media and general public to be aware that the way they talk about suicide makes a significant difference.
Harkavy-Friedman agreed. “The way we talk about mental health, in general, makes a difference to the person on the other side,” she said. “Psychiatric problems should be acknowledged and discussed sensitively, not dismissed as shameful.”
By Erica Salcuni
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
The Lancet Psychiatry