NOTE: If you are depressed or suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
On Friday morning, CNN reported that host Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide at age 61. Bourdain had struggled with depression for years – just last year, he stated in an interview with The Guardian that he “was an unhappy soul, with a huge heroin and then crack problem. I hurt, disappointed, and offended many, many, many people and I regret a lot. It’s a shame I have to live with.”
Bourdain is just the latest in a string of prominent celebrities suffering from depression who have taken their own lives. Last week, Kate Spade committed suicide; she was reportedly fixated on Robin Williams’ suicide. And suicide rates across America have been spiking: as of 2014, American suicide rates had skyrocketed to their highest rate in three decades, all the way to 13 people per 100,000, even as death rates from other causes declined markedly. Suicide was particularly common among middle-aged white people. The overall suicide rate climbed 24 percent from 1999 to 2014; in 2014, over 14,000 middle-aged white Americans committed suicide. Between 2006 and 2016, the suicide rate for white children jumped 70 percent, and the suicide rate among black children (while lower than that of white children overall) jumped 77 percent. According to USA Today:
A study of pediatric hospitals released last May found admissions of patients ages 5 to 17 for suicidal thoughts and actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015. The group at highest risk for suicide are white males between 14 and 21.
What’s causing this uptick? Traditional theories regarding poverty don’t seem to hold much water – the economic recovery was well underway by 2014, and more poverty-stricken demographic groups in the United States had lower suicide rates than whites did on a consistent basis. And theories regarding bullying don’t seem to solve the question either – bullying isn’t worse in 2017 than it was in 1999, and studies seem to show that once depression and delinquency are factored out, bullying does not rate as an independent variable changing suicide rates.
Suicide is a complex social phenomenon, and it’s difficult to pin down cause and effect. Surely rising rates of opioid abuse have contributed to the suicide increase, but that wouldn’t explain the jump among young people. There’s a case to be made that decline of religiosity in wealthier societies has led to an uptick in suicide (poorer societies tend to have far less of a suicide problem than wealthy societies, so religious differences matter less statistically). We are suffering a crisis of meaning in the West, and it’s having a significant impact on suicidality.
There’s one measure that we in the media can take more immediately: thinking about how we cover suicide.
In an age of mass media, the so-called Werther Effect becomes more prominent. One of the most durable findings in social science is the temporary uptick in suicide rate that often follows heavy media coverage of suicide. People who are vulnerable to suicidal thoughts are far more likely to commit suicide in the wake of such coverage. The Werther Effect is named after The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe; that book supposedly caused suicides all over the continent when it came out thanks to its rather romantic depiction of a lovelorn young man shooting himself. But the Werther Effect has been confirmed in the aftermath of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, for example; the months after her death, there were 303 excess suicides (higher than average) in the United States. As The Atlantic reported, when Netflix released the suicide-glorying 13 Reasons Why, “Google queries about suicide rose by almost 20 percent in 19 days after the show came out, representing between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches than usual regarding the subject… Seventeen out of the top 20 searches were significantly elevated, and the biggest increases came with terms related to suicidal thoughts and ideation, like ‘how to kill yourself.’” Many European countries have laws regarding reporting on suicide; after implementing such laws, suicide rates declined. That doesn’t mean we should attempt such First Amendment violations in the United States. It does mean that we in the media should seriously consider our reportage.
Some suggest that media coverage can help reduce suicide by warning people about it – the so-called Papageno Effect, named after Mozart’s Magic Flute character who is dissuaded from suicide by three spirits. But that only really applies, in the research, to telling stories about suicidal people who learned not to commit suicide – it doesn’t apply to coverage of actual suicides.
Depression is horrible (I’ve had friends and family who suffer from it), and suicidality is a difficult condition to fight. It’s up to all of us, in the media or out, to reach out to those we love to help them fight against their demons, to infuse life with meaning, and to consider how we cover stories of suicide.