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Making sense of celebrity suicides
June 13, 2018

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Celebrity suicides take our breath away, in part because we conflate recognition and happiness. We mistakenly think that being widely known and highly regarded by strangers is deeply satisfying and existentially reassuring, a sure-fire way to resolve existential questions and crises. And so we struggle to reconcile how someone so obviously successful and popular as Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade could make such a desperate choice. The shock is visceral.

Such deaths also hit hard because of the odd way celebrity culture works. We feel a quasi-personal connection to celebrities through the expansive virtual-reality qualities of television coverage, magazines and social media. They take on an outsized presence and importance, not only drawing our attention, but also influencing our sense of self. We model ourselves after them, paying homage through how we dress and accessorize, how we vote, what we buy, what we desire, what we deem acceptable. We make choices that match, or at least resonate, with theirs.

And this is where things get concerning. When someone famous takes his or her life, the death, of course, is newsworthy. Audiences are transfixed. We want details, more and more details. And as we take in this information, the more the suicide - the shock of it, the fact of it, the choice of it - suffuses public conversation and private thought.

Tracking suicide rates after Robin Williams took his life in August of 2014, epidemiologists at Columbia University found an almost 10 percent increase in U.S. suicides over the next five months, along with a 32 percent increase in the suicide method that the popular comedian had used. The scientists who conducted the study suggested that news media reports of Williams' death had significantly influenced the choices of people suffering with suicidal ideation.

Suicidality is characterized by a kind of tunnel vision - a narrowing of the ability to seek out and recognize options for responding to overwhelming circumstances - as well as a tight spiraling of the thoughts and emotions that accompany these circumstances. This darkening and tightening are further intensified by loss, alienation, and futility. It is painfully ironic that celebrities, by definition those most ubiquitously known in our culture, can suffer so acutely the fraying of connection inherent in the decision to die by suicide.

It makes sense that if we look to celebrities for guidance in how to live, we'd be influenced by their choices in how to die. But the influence isn't direct; it is always, necessarily, mediated by the delivery system - by the media itself. Traditional and social media shape not only public opinion, but also public choices.

Those who decide on the nature of the coverage of celebrity suicides and who disseminate that information can help save lives if they keep foremost in their imaginations not only the size of their viewership or readership, but also a sensitivity to their pain and vulnerability. With that in mind, they will make a difference if they assiduously avoid sensationalizing the death and the method, accompany all reports with information about accessing help (e.g., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255) and feature stories about prevention.

Douglas Flemons, Ph.D., is a professor of family therapy and co-director of Nova Southeastern University's Office of Suicide and Violence Prevention.

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