It is estimated that every day, about 3,000 people across the world die due to suicide. The family members of these people experience severe shock, disbelief and sometimes shame. The recent suicides of Avicii (DJ), Anthony Bourdian (Chef, TV host and author) and Kate Spade (Fashion designer) created sensational headlines. These celebrities were very talented, successful, wealthy and widely loved. The singular question that was being asked was “What made them take the extreme step?” The thoughts that actually precipitated the suicidal act unfortunately die with them and we can only make guesses about why they took their lives. However, we can learn lessons from such celebrity suicides that would help us deal with suicidal ideation.
Celebrities are after all human beings
When a family member or a close friend dies due to suicide the experience can be emotionally devastating. But when a celebrity dies due to suicide, it is not just their family but the entire world that is left shocked and betrayed. We realize that celebrities, despite all the fame, money, and everything else, are not immune to suicides. They are also human beings and like everybody else, they too experience pains and disappointments. But, they have to manage or cope with them all alone and away from the public eye. It is important for us to realize that unlike the celebrities we enjoy the liberty of talking about suicidal ideation and seeking help from mental health professionals to resolve all our problems.
The impact of a celebrity suicide can be intense and personal
The news of a celebrity suicide and the intense media coverage catches the fans and the general public unawares and shocks them to the core. The news can also trigger sadness, fear, confusion and anger. Intense reactions are noted because the celebrities are often viewed as being stronger and less vulnerable than the common man. When Robin Williams (actor and comedian) died by suicide his fans were devastated: “How could someone who made the world laugh get so disillusioned with life that he killed himself?” Celebrity suicides can be shattering also: “If they (the celebrities) can’t go on with life, how can I?” is a sentiment that often gets expressed by the fans. The lesson to be learned here is that experiences of pain and disappointment are highly personal and no two persons should react in the same manner to a problem.
Copy cat suicides
When someone suffering with mental health problems and suicidal ideation hears about another individual with similar problems committed suicide, it puts death on the table and validates the former’s suicidal ideation. Persons with strong suicidal ideation develop tunnel vision: they perceive suicide as the only option available for them. Research on the effects of media has shown a dose effect: the more exposure to media reporting of suicide, including the number of articles and the prominence of the death, the greater the copycat effect. The impact is more for people similar to the victim in age and gender.
Other studies have found that after a celebrity suicide, there is a marked increased in internet searches on the subjects of suicide and depression, particularly among young adults. For the four months following the suicide of Robin Williams, the suicide rate went by 10 percent (CDC data), especially among the middle-aged men, and suicide by strangulation went by 32 percent (Williams used a belt to hang himself).
Copy cat suicides can occur for other reasons also. Following the publication of Wolfgang Goethe’s Sufferings of Young Werther, there was a rash of suicides across Europe notably similar to the one in the novel. It was called the “Werther effect.” The lessons to be learned from copy cat suicides would be more appropriate for the media in terms of how they should report such deaths.
Open talk about suicides
Celebrity suicides should be taken as opportunities to discuss the underlying causes of suicide and mental illness and the barriers to seeking and accessing treatment. The fashion designer Kate Spade hesitated to get help for her depression because she was worried that it would hurt her brand, which included cheerful and brightly colored handbags and clothes. On the other hand, Deepika Padukone, a leading Bollywood actress spoke about her struggle with anxiety and depression. She felt liberated and did not think she was caged anymore or like she was hiding something. She emphasized that it was important for her to tell the world what she went through so that everyone gets to know that there ways of dealing with it.
Public talk about mental illness and suicide is good for everybody, including celebrities. It helps break down the stigma and facilitate difficult conversations. The stigma of mental illness is fading, but the greatest hurdle for many people is not the fear of seeking treatment, but access to such treatment.
It is a fact that suicidal ideation can be reduced or eliminated. Many people who considered or attempted suicide got help, and they got better. The media should write about such people. We need to read and hear about how they (the celebrities in particular) got out of it, what did they learn and what they would like to tell others. In other words, the focus should be on hope and life not only on despair and death.
People who choose suicide want to end their pain, not their lives. It is unfortunate that they select a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Celebrity deaths remind us that no one, no matter how revered or celebrated, is immune to depression and the associated feelings of isolation, emptiness, heartbreak and hopelessness. Celebrity deaths should tell us that anyone can help, and little gestures can be sufficient. Life is precious: we should tell people how much they mean to us, all the more so when they are alive.
I have completed 30 years of teaching and research in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India.