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Suicides Spiked Following the Death of Robin Williams

One tragedy appears to have inspired others.
Robin Williams, pictured here in August of 2006.

Robin Williams, pictured here in August of 2006.

Robin Williams brought a lot of joy to a lot of people during his 63 years of life. But new research reports there is a dark side to his formidable legacy.

It reports that, in the four months after the actor and comedian took his own life, the suicide rate in the United States was nearly 10 percent higher than it would be otherwise.

That suggests more than 1,800 people were prompted by news coverage of his demise to follow his example.

"We found both a rapid increase in suicides in August 2014, and specifically suffocation suicides, that paralleled the time and method of Williams' death," a research team led by David Fink of Columbia University writes in the online journal PLoS One.

HOW MUCH DID THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS HARM ROBIN WILLIAMS? Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife.

"Although excess suicides were observed across gender and age groups, males and persons aged 30 to 44 had the greatest increase," the researchers report. That presumably includes a lot of people who grew up with his movies.

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fisk and his colleagues noted the number of suicides in the four months following August 11th, 2014, the day Williams' body was found in his bedroom. An autopsy released in November concluded he had died of asphyxia and hanging, and noted he had a long history of depression. It later emerged that he was suffering from Lewy Body dementia.

To establish a point of comparison, the researchers used a model that took into effect both year-to-year trends and seasonal averages. They note that suicides generally "peak in the early spring, and trough in the summer months."

Their calculations revealed that, "compared to prior years, there was a marked increase—9.9 percent—in the number of suicides beginning in August 2014 through December 2014." This spike was found for both men and women, and for all age groups, although it was highest, at 12.9 percent, for people in their 30s and early 40s.

Tellingly, "we observed a 32.3 percent increase in the number of suffocation suicides in the first five months that followed Williams' death," they write, "compared to a 3.1 percent increase in the number of suicides from all other methods combined."

The notion of mass media contributing to a rise in suicides goes back to the 1774 publication of Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The title character kills himself, and this apparently drove many susceptible readers to do the same—a phenomenon known as the Werther effect.

Still, not all celebrity suicides (fictional or real) have the same effect. Fink and his colleagues note that the 1994 death of rock star Kurt Cobain did not lead to an increase in suicides, even in the Seattle area where he was based.

The difference, they write, may stem in part from the way the media covered the two deaths. They report that news of Cobain's tragedy was marked by "restrictive reporting on the details of (his) death, as well as consistent messages regarding suicide prevention throughout reporting."

In contrast, the coverage of Williams' death sometimes got quite specific. At a televised news conference, a law-enforcement officer discussed the belt Williams used to hang himself, as well as his body position and the marks on his wrists.

Fink and his colleagues urge the media to be more sensitive when the next celebrity death occurs. But they also concede that, in this era of social media, a lot of unedited information will spread via the Internet. Even if NBC News proceeds with caution, your Facebook feed could get quite grisly.

The data can't conclusively prove that coverage of Williams' death led directly to the deaths of so many others, but it's hard to conceive any other explanation. News that one of our most brilliant funnymen took his own life hit a lot of people hard, and, for some—especially the demographic the researchers refer to as "middle-aged men in despair"—it may have been the final straw.