This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

CopyCat Suicides Followed the Death of Robin Williams

In Chapter 5 (The Health and Mortality Transition) of my text I discuss the work of David Phillips, a friend who is now Professor Emeritus in Sociology at UCSD. His research on the social and psychological influences on death, especially suicide, has been widely published and discussed since his first paper on the topic came out back in 1974. The most recent replication of his line of research was published this week in PLOS One and came to my attention via a news story in Mother Jones.
In August 2014, actor and comedian Robin Williams, famous for his roles in movies like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and Mrs. Doubtfire, committed suicide at his home just north of San Francisco. He was 63 years old and, as the public would later find out, was struggling with depression and dementia. In the weeks after his death, headlines like, “Robin Williams hanged himself in bedroom with a belt, sheriff says” and “Robin Williams Committed Suicide by Hanging Himself, Police Say,” flooded newsstands and newsfeeds across the country.
Now, new research shows that such coverage might have contributed to a horrible and unintended consequence: a spike in suicides in the following months.
This rise in possible “copycat suicides,” the authors write, is likely an example of the “Werther effect,” a phenomenon coined by suicide researcher David Phillips. (He named the effect after the 1774 Goethe novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which tells the story of a man who shoots himself after a love interest falls for someone else—and is widely blamed for the flood of young European men killing themselves shortly after the book’s release.)
Just as Phillips had done in his research on celebrity suicides, the authors of this study (David S. Fink, Julian Santaella-Tenorio, and Katherine M. Keyes--all at Columbia University) had looked at the time trend in suicides before and after the stories came about Robin Williams' death, and there was indeed a statistically significant increase that almost certainly represented copycat suicides.

Over time, the research of Phillips and the many studies that followed his have led people to try to set up guidelines on reporting this sort of news. As the authors point out in their paper:
Celebrity suicide effects have led to the World Health Organization to establishment media guidelines for reporting a high profile celebrity death, including sensitivity and non-sensationalism in the reporting of the means of suicide, the precipitating factors, and the risk factors for suicide apparent in the deceased, and clear and consistent messages about suicide prevention and help-seeking during reporting. The extent to which these guidelines were followed after the death of Mr. Williams, however, is questionable, and as such, we examined suicide incidence in the United States by month surrounding the time frame of Mr. Williams’ death.
Thus, despite the knowledge that publicizing the suicide of a famous person is apt to lead to additional deaths, the practice continues... 

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