Suicide and the Media

June 18, 2008
Sensitivity must be used when the media reports on teen suicides. Sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. And when it doesn’t, you often find copycat attempts in the wake of a teen suicide. How does it happen? Impulsive teenagers are more prone to suicide. Studies have shown that this, combined with a glamorized ­account of the details and the nature of the suicide – the method used, and other titillating information – can cause a spike in teen suicide in the local area. And, when a famous person commits suicide, teen suicide rises on a national level.

Teens often romanticize adventure and living on the edge. According to Pamela Cantor, president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Youth Suicide, this can be a deadly combination when faced with a suicide. Cantor says, “Kids see that this is a glamorous way to die, a way to get a lot of attention that they couldn’t get in life.” In an interview, Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect, said, “When the media comes in and does a graphic depiction of it – it doesn’t work to scare kids away.” He notes that teens even create a fantasy of what their funeral will look like. They imagine flying over their funeral and seeing how much they are missed.

In 2005, one young person in the United States committed suicide every two hours. That’s approximately 4,500 teen suicides! Of those, 100 to 200 teens died in clusters. In many cases, the additional victims were friends of the teen or identified strongly with something about his story reported in the news.

In Plano, Texas, where one of the first reported clusters occurred 25 years ago, a teen’s suicide was tragically followed by eight more teen deaths, mostly using the same method. Similarly, when a popular teenager in Bergenfield, New Jersey, ended his life in 1987, several of his friends killed themselves six months later. This was followed by two additional suicide attempts using a similar method. And, when the cluster was studied more carefully, an additional four teen deaths were linked to this first suicide.

Copycat and cluster suicides are played out on a national level when a famous person commits suicide. Media coverage of the event is nonstop, which often leads to more tragedy. For example, according to the New York Magazine article “A Dying Trend,” when Marilyn Monroe took her life in August 1962, the suicide rate in the following month rose by 12 percent, which was an additional 197 suicides.

This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. In 1986 in Tokyo, Japan, 18-year-old Okada Yukiko, a popular Japanese singer, took her life. Her widely reported death resulted in a staggering 31 teen suicides in the following two weeks, a phenomenon that the mass media in Japan called “the Yukko syndrome.”

So what can be done? Research has shown that the way the media handles the reporting of suicides can be critical in reducing copycats and clusters. A study was conducted in Vienna. Between 1984 and 1987, there were a large number of suicides by people who jumped in front of trains. The media coverage was overly dramatic and graphic. A campaign urging the media to change its coverage of these tragedies ­resulted in an 80 percent decrease in incidents of this type of suicide.

According to the Suicide and Mental Health ­Association International’s report on Suicide Contagion, the media should not sensationalize the event or glamorize the victim or act. Describing the method used should also be kept to a minimum. Another ­important step the media can take is to ­focus on the mental health aspects of the suicide. Just saying that the victim was “stressed” or “under pressure” makes it too easy for other teenagers to identify with the victim. Those who commit suicide often have long-standing mental health issues that are often ignored in the media coverage, which is a huge mistake.

Teenagers need to see that they are not “just like” the teen who committed suicide. Suicide is caused by many factors; it is not acceptable for the media to be one of them.

Join the Discussion

This article has 223 comments. Post your own now!

tennisstar said...
Mar. 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm
I never really thought about how media could actually cause more suicides! I agree with everything you said in this article. People dont think about their actions or how they will make others feel when they commit suicide. I congratulate you on raising awareness on suicide. Keep up the good work.
BrynaJo replied...
Nov. 20, 2011 at 10:27 pm
Well, of course they aren't thinking of how they are going to affect others. When someone commits suicide, they feel so alone in the world. They don't think that anybody cares that they are going to die. They aren't being selfish. They just feel like there is no one else to care.
SeerKnowsBest said...
Mar. 3, 2011 at 6:06 pm
i love hold still too! wow it's one of my favorites. i literally had to just stop and think a few times about what the author was saying. it was beautifully written
itgetsbetterbaby said...
Feb. 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm
I loved this article. 
anonymous said...
Feb. 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm
i think that suicide-thoughts might be kinda genetic cause my grandad killed himself, my mom almost did, and sometimes have thoughts about it i've been having lots of bad days or lots of pressure. but i have to disagree with part of the article, i don't think kids commit suicide to get attention.
phoenix replied...
Mar. 3, 2011 at 2:20 pm
Suicide thoughts themselves are not genetic however things that can cause them like depression or anxiety often are. Most kids don't think to themselves i'm not getting attention maybe if i commit suicide i will, some do but not many, however many times there is a more subtle element of a cry for help, weather the person is aware of it or not. You are right however, sometimes it has nothing to do with attention whatsoever.
Monkeygirl11 replied...
Jan. 26, 2012 at 8:35 pm
I agree. I really can't see someone being so desperate for attention that they end their life.
KitKat said...
Feb. 3, 2011 at 1:56 pm
I think that the real reason youth/kids are commiting suicide is based on the media.
xxxsam33 said...
Jan. 21, 2011 at 3:52 pm
I don't think that teens committ suicide just because they want attention. They wouldn't go to such extremes to get it. They could be diagnosed with depression and/or feel like it is the only way out of a bad situation or a hard life.
BlahBlah135 said...
Jan. 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm
JUMP dfgsdfgsdf
SeerKnowsBest said...
Dec. 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm
you should read th1rteen r3asons why
ha52214 replied...
Mar. 2, 2011 at 7:39 am
My FAVORITE book!!!!! LOVE THAT BOOK SOOOOO MUCH!!!! everyone should read it!!!! <3
RachelLW replied...
Mar. 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm
"Th1rteen R3asons Why" is a really good book, but I don't think that it really shows the reality of suicide and what it's like to have someone you're close to commit suicide. I think that "Hold Still" is probably the best book to illustrate that
12333 replied...
Apr. 13, 2011 at 6:34 pm
ehh i disagree.... it gives a good description of things leading up to it.... and explains to those whov neve rbeen there how someone can get dragged into thinkg about/ doing itt
SeerKnowsBest replied...
Apr. 13, 2011 at 8:13 pm
i love hold still too they are both amazing
Israel70717 said...
Dec. 14, 2010 at 3:52 pm
I like this article. From reading this article i would have to say that the media shouldnt just put sucide deaths of teens. But they should put down something along the reasons why people get suicidle thoughts and ways to help them. or even put down someone who has been treated from that stage. I dnt have those thoughts and i hope i never do get them. But i got depression in my blood i think because almost all my family takes medicine for it. I have only had two times with it but i can just imag... (more »)
hiimaidann said...
Dec. 10, 2010 at 10:12 am
This is an amazing article but this is such a sad subject when i read it i cant stop myself from crying
moneyman13 said...
Dec. 9, 2010 at 7:51 am
I belive that people can have suicide thoughts  
Writer4Life_21 said...
Dec. 3, 2010 at 7:49 pm
my advice to the writer of this article is to make do something with this article! take it to major magazines and to the news and radio and every type of media there is out there. if you really want to do something about this horrible issue in the world, you must start my making your brilliant idea known!
There_Is_No_Forever said...
Dec. 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm
This is so true. There was a story on the local news in my area about a suicide recently and within weeks there were at least 3 suicides similar to the first. The media shows too much information and lets teens in particular think that suicide is an escape. they think their preventing it but they're really promoting it in some situations.
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