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Why do celebrity deaths and suicides affect us so much?

Published by: Patrick Williams,

The effect of celebrity death and suicide

The spate of high profile suicides over the last weeks have stirred much discussion about how and why celebrity deaths affect us, often more than major tragedies such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

Many in the Baby Boomer generation remember what they were doing when John F Kennedy or John Lennon were shot, while Generation X might remember the death of Princess Diana, or Kurt Cobain. What’s different is that since those events, technology has enabled celebrities to be more pervasive in our own lives and social media has changed the way we share experiences for both good and bad.

There has been extensive media coverage on the recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade; Ines Zorreguieta, sister to the Dutch Queen Maxima; and television chef Anthony Bourdain, with some publications going so far as to report on the methodology used.

The impact of these events has been amplified by mass media, revealing just how much effect celebrities have on our lives. Social media has opened a window into the lives of our icons that goes beyond the silver screen and lets us glimpse their more intimate moments. In many cases we know more about our heroes than we do our own friends and family. Furthermore, many icons are musicians or movie stars and therefore responsible for the soundtrack or backdrop to key events in our lives. So, it’s small wonder that their passing can have such a profound impact on their fans.

However, it’s the irresponsible sharing of information and its consumption by vulnerable people that is most concerning. Just as with suicide ideation, suicide contagion is a recognised phenomenon. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE in February of this year found that after the 2014 suicide of actor Robin Williams, there was a 9.85 percent increase in suicides in the US over the following four months. Moreover, the highest impact was among men aged 30 to 44.

Indeed, it’s long been acknowledged that those most at risk of suicide are men in the 40 to 44 age bracket. However, a study released by the National Center for Health Statistics this month showed that suicides among women have risen twice as fast as men between 2000 and 2016.

The trend is worrying. Around 800,000 people commit suicide every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and it is estimated that there are more than 20 attempted suicides for each completed suicide worldwide.
And yet, over 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder, such as depression or alcoholism, or both. Often they just don’t get the help they need and the nature of psychiatric disorders means they are less likely to seek help themselves, or even realise there is a problem.

While there is no “typical” suicide victim, there are often warning signs that someone may be thinking about suicide. Here are some indicators to look for:

Spoken or written threats of suicide like, “I wish the pain would go away” or “Everyone would be better off if I were dead.” If the person talks about dying by suicide or has written notes or letters about it, always take it very seriously.

High-risk behaviour. People who are thinking about suicide sometimes hurt themselves by engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, sudden sexual promiscuity, self-mutilation (such as cutting or burning), an eating disorder, and even criminal behaviour. Suicidal people may drive recklessly and put themselves and others in danger. Watch for any drastic changes in mood or behaviour.

Withdrawal and loss of interest. No longer enjoying activities that used to be enjoyable, isolating oneself from family or friends, and not taking care of personal appearance are all common signs of depression.

Recent important losses. A person may become suicidal as a result of problems or changes that make them feel trapped or helpless. These may include divorce, loss of child custody, job loss, a relationship breakup, moving to a new home or city, or the death of a loved one.

Major changes in sleep or eating patterns. Excessive fatigue, not being able to sleep or sleeping much more than usual, or a loss of appetite or eating much more than usual are all signs that someone may be suffering from depression.

Obsession with death. Suicidal people sometimes show an unusual interest in death by the books or movies they choose or the websites they visit. They may do online research about ways to kill themselves. They may even spend time preparing for death by making out a will, planning their funeral, or making final arrangements.

If you suspect that someone you care about may be suicidal, don’t ignore your suspicions—make sure you address them and take action right away. If it seems like the situation may be serious, assist the person you are concerned about to get professional help immediately. Do not agree to keep suicidal information secret, and break a confidence if necessary. Asking about suicide will not suggest the idea to someone or encourage suicide. It can be difficult to ask, but it is very important and may be the only way to find out how much danger someone is in. Ask the question directly. You might say, “It sounds like things have been really hard for you and I want to help. Have you been thinking about killing yourself?” Listen without judgement and seek help from a professional.

Your employer may well provide access to an Employee Assistance Platform (EAP) and trained professionals, otherwise call a support group such as the Samaritans or even the emergency services if there is an immediate concern.

US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800 273 825

Mind UK MindInfoline: 0300 123 3393

Patrick Williams is Clinical Director at LifeWorks

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