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!

Dustfingers This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 29, 2010 at 10:40 am
I think the media play sa role by endorsing it instead of really trying to fix the problem. Like Rhianna's new song russian roulette I mean when her fans listen to that song and they could rely on music to stimulate thier emotions. She's plabnting a seed in that persons head that migh be small but when the timing is right one of her fans will think about that song and suicide will cross thier minds at the wrong time
MJBlack replied...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm
you mean there is a right time to contemplate suicide?
Life-without-a-heartbeat replied...
Feb. 9, 2010 at 10:34 am
I dont think there realy is a right time to think about suicide. Anytime u think of suicide its the wrong time. It's never the answer.
MJBlack replied...
Feb. 9, 2010 at 10:54 am
Thank you! Someone who is finally making sense.
APoetAtHeart said...
Jan. 28, 2010 at 9:38 am
Amazing artical really. The media shouldn't be doing so,because it threatens the lives of others. I support
goddamnhellandaheartbeat said...
Jan. 6, 2010 at 1:15 pm
I have alot of experience with suicide having once attempted it myself and i must respectfully disagree. Your piece was well written and well informed but i personally and several others who attemped suicide one of whom succeded did not care much about the media. We wanted it to be over. The seven of us lied in the highway waiting for someone to hit us one by one not one of us died that day Though we did stop traffic for a full 3 hours. The media did not make us do this. We did. Micheal wanted t... (more »)
tomkae119 replied...
Jan. 24, 2010 at 8:27 pm
Absolutely no offense to you, but as a mother, teacher, and a teen of long ago who lost a godbrother, friend, and family friend to suicide, the fact is that if you had really wanted to take your life that day, you would have done it without much attention. I obviously don't know you, but the emo people I did know when I was young spent their time finding ways to hurt themselves so they could tell everybody and get sympathy. I knew self-cutters, anorexics, bulimics, pill poppers, etc. The... (more »)
SmileinyourSleep replied...
Feb. 3, 2010 at 6:08 pm
Well, I myself have tried so many times and you don't know how it feels to want to die so badley so you can't say that we ask for sympathy when in fact that's the last thing we wnated. I myself was molested at the age of 9 and wanted everything to end. I'm sorry i couln't succesfully kill myslef but sometimes ther is an ounce of hope in somebody, that things will get better, taht there is a saviour, so yes, i do take offense to what you say because you may have expierenc... (more »)
MJBlack replied...
Feb. 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm
Most people who say they have been through a traumatic event in their life are liars. They are just bored and want attention. I am not saying that you are fibbing, I'm just saying that things like this alaways seem to happen. Is it really just a coincidence?
Life-without-a-heartbeat replied...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 10:49 am
I also must respectfully disagree with tomkea and Mjblack. I did not wish for anyones pity of sympathy I wanted to end my life because it felt it was no longer worth living. I did really want to take my life that day...but tomkea you are also correct I stopped myself with one thought that came to me. Why should i let myself be beaten? Why should I give up and give in the all the people who had said that i could not make it. I decided from that day forward that i would make it my personal mission... (more »)
MJBlack replied...
Feb. 5, 2010 at 4:14 pm
Obviously this conversation has become like beating your head against an open door. We've talked it through and said are piece, lets move on.
lostandfound95 said...
Dec. 29, 2009 at 10:32 pm
i understand where the media and the public comes from. most people frown upon suicide. but i also believe that they truly know what suicide means. they are ready, and its not just an impulse to end your own life. the view i offer to all of you is that, sure ending your life is truly devestating, but i would rather see them off whatever comes after life then see them moping in depression on earth.
panicback said...
Dec. 28, 2009 at 9:55 am
This is a very well written piece. Very good. However, I find this very hard to believe. Suicide is something people think about for a very long period of time, it's not something they just do. I agree that the Media influences people, but it is hard for me to believe that it is a deciding factor that could end someones life. From my personal experience with suicidal people (I have a lot) they are far from caring about what the media has to say, they only care about it being over.
babyrachid said...
Dec. 10, 2009 at 2:04 pm
this is the om=ne thing that scares me cuz i don't anyone to feel that low that they don't want to b on earth anymore.
justagirl said...
Dec. 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm
this is so sad two boys from my school commited suicide last year:(
LavenderStone said...
Dec. 7, 2009 at 8:39 pm
This article brings to light a very serious issue. Suicide shouldn't be handled the way it is. I have a friend who romanticizes suicide, and I worry about her everyday. I hope more people will become aware of major factors towards teenage suicide.
spleeny said...
Nov. 30, 2009 at 8:28 pm
if someone can be influenced by the media to kill him/herself, that person already has mental health issues. mentally healthy people are not going to consider suicide just because of the media.
if it weren't a portrayal in the media that triggered it, it would have been something else.
besides, there has long been a portrayal of suicide as romantic or glamorous in literature. think romeo and juliet. we can't blame the modern media for people's individual actions.
shakespeare418 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Dec. 31, 2009 at 9:25 am
Spleeny... I don't think it's safe to assume that only mentally healthy people are the ones watching the media. Have you ever heard of the computer term, "Garbage in, garbage out?" Well, our minds work the same way- mentally healthy or not. If an already unstable person watches and act it is very easy for him or her to fixate on it, just like Harris so wonderfully explain. If it doesn't effect you, then I guess there's no arguing with that. But I would encourag... (more »)
spleeny replied...
Dec. 31, 2009 at 9:50 am
my point was that a mentally unhealthy person will find something to fixate on no matter what. the article notes that people copied the methods of others, but that doesn't mean they weren't going to do it anyway. the majority of healthy people will not see a depiction of suicide and copy it, and just eliminating those depictions isn't going to cure a person who is already mentally ill, especially when examples are everywhere, not just in modern media.
shakespeare418 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Dec. 31, 2009 at 10:47 am
You're right, it's not going to. And someone who ismentally ill may or may ot fixate on something. But I think that it would be very compassionate of the media to decrease the availability of negative ideas to fixate on.
Site Feedback