How Celebrity Deaths And The Coverage Of Them Can Contribute To More Suicides
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This was a week where early on we got news that designer Kate Spade had died. And we close the workweek with the news that author, TV personality and chef Anthony Bourdain has died. Both Spade and Bourdain are reported to have died by suicide. And we're going to take the next few minutes to examine an uncomfortable phenomenon - how celebrity deaths and the media coverage of them can contribute to more suicides.
Jennifer Michael Hecht has written a book about how different cultures deal with suicide. She recently wrote an essay about this for the online publication Vox. Jennifer, welcome to the program.
JENNIFER MICHAEL HECHT: Thanks so much.
KELLY: So what do we know about how high-profile deaths like Kate Spade's, like Anthony Bourdain's - how they may influence others? Is there a copycat effect?
HECHT: There really is, and we have abundant evidence of it. After a celebrity suicide, people who match the person in age, gender, race, sometimes profession, anything that makes a person feel like the person - we see a rise in suicide quite dramatic.
KELLY: And what would explain that? Is what's going on here that someone who maybe is struggling with mental health issues or something happening in their life - they look at someone who seems like them who may also have been suffering and if that person kills themself, it puts it on the table as an option?
HECHT: Yeah. If you've never heard of anyone who's done something, it's really outside the scope of what you think of as your responses to a problem. When you've heard of a bunch of people like you who have responded that way - and so that, I'm talking about suicide clusters that are about a particular school or profession. And we see it all the time. There's just so much evidence of it. And it's important to know that this rise that we're experiencing now - the levels are not unheard of.
KELLY: And I'll just introduce some of the data you're referring to because I should mention another thing that happened this week is that the CDC released a study that found suicide in the U.S. is rising, that suicide rates are up in nearly every state. And I wanted to ask about that. When something becomes more common in society, might that - and I don't use this term lightly. But might that normalize it in some way?
HECHT: That's exactly the word that social scientists use. And yes, it normalizes it. But if we talk too much about the epidemic that's going on, that can normalize things. But what we need from journalists is some responsibility.
KELLY: So what does responsible media coverage look like? How should the media cover when someone kills themselves?
HECHT: Well, we have a lot more information on print media. But we know for sure that if you leave the fact of the suicide out of the headline and you don't go in too much detail into how it was done in the body of the text - you know, this is the Internet. I know that we'll be able to find everything. Journalists have to not use too many excitable words even though that's the business of journalism. But in some cases, it's going to be better to be seen as the place you can get news without being battered by bad images or language you want to protect yourself from or images you want to protect yourself from.
KELLY: Before I let you go, to pull back the curtain a little bit on how we're thinking about it in the media, we had a conversation in the newsroom this morning over whether to do this interview on air because would talking about it maybe contribute to the problem in some way? What do you think?
HECHT: What we've found is that good talk is way better than no talk, but bad talk is very bad. But the thing is, if you ask around, you'll find a very large percentage of the population thinks about suicide now and again without even wanting to. But it's not really a risk of putting it in someone's mind just by talking about it. People feel heard and loved when you speak to them and say, we need to stay for each other and supporting each other in that because a lot of suicide notes are full of the idea that they're a burden. And they really just don't realize what a burden suicide would be.
KELLY: Well, Jennifer, thank you for a very thoughtful conversation on this today.
HECHT: Thanks so much.
KELLY: That's Jennifer Michael Hecht. She is author of the book "Stay: A History Of Suicide And The Arguments Against It." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.