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!

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.
Life-without-a-heartbeat replied...
Mar. 19, 2010 at 10:30 am
I agree with you both. Spleeny makes an excellent point that When I declined from being perfectly sane into being suicidal and enraged all the time It was not due to the media. All the same the media handles a lot of very delicate issues the wrong way.
blackrose326 said...
Nov. 27, 2009 at 8:58 am
Ive been suicidal. Ive also attempted it a few times(6 to be exact). I just couldn't see how I could go on another day living with the struggle of not even wanting to wake up. I have to force myself to get up every morning. The only thing that keeps me here is knowing what my friends would do & how my family would be hurt.
I actually wrote a note to my friend Then she started crying which made my other friend cry which madew me cry & I realized how bad I was hurting them. Any... (more »)
ambermarie<3 said...
Nov. 20, 2009 at 9:00 am
so sayud ):
hbeats4u2 said...
Nov. 18, 2009 at 4:19 pm
I had a friend who killed herself this past week. Her name was Sam. I am still crying and am now afraid that her more close friends might try to attmept the same thing. My parents tell me that I can't help everyone but, I still try. I just wish she would've taken my advice and live through her depression. But, she took the easy way out. She commited suicide.
pictolover said...
Nov. 2, 2009 at 12:58 pm
You have a point but... people who are not really suicidal may kill themselves to seem like they're fitting in. Gross and twisted i know. and i was suicidal for 3 years. the media had no influence on whether or not i would kill myself. I knew if i did, i would be letting down all the people i loved and knew.
LarryB said...
Aug. 7, 2009 at 1:13 am
@Zoev9: What pain and misery? Having a home with food and clothing provided? Sure, I can understand if they're under abuse or are in a bad situation, this may pressure some teens towards suicide, but otherwise it's selfish. If a person commits suicide, it's a slap in the face of everyone who ever gave anything to them. It's as if they said "You wasted your time." All lives are worth something, even if some think they're worthless. And anyway, death is probably pretty boring.
ashh replied...
Sept. 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm
Your wrong. I'm from an amazing home with an amazing family. I am not a selfish person I know I have an amazing life and I could not ask for more, yet I am depressed, I am suicidal. It's not anything that my family has done it's a mental problem that I can't control. So until you've experienced it yourself shut your mouth and watch what you say.
ciaradell This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 10, 2009 at 12:30 am
Wow, that's heated! :o
I know what Ashh means though.
Come on, I mean there are reasons that some people feel suicidal, sometimes it's a condition, sometimes it's not.
Once, when I was younger, I had honestly considered suicide because of a broken heart, and I felt there was nothing left to live for.
When you put your heart into something and it gets crushed, believe me, you want to die. Even if it's something as silly as a boy.
LarryB needs to G... (more »)
Life-without-a-heartbeat replied...
Mar. 19, 2010 at 10:37 am
Larry what you say please. What you said has obviously offended some people and that is not what we want. I must disagree with you Larry for no more than the reason. I have a great life. I have a loving mother and step-dad who give me the whole world. I have still attempted to kill myself and this is because I have something called Manic depressive syndrome. I go into fits of depression or rage for no reason. It is something I cannot control. I am grateful to everyone who loves me. I c... (more »)
sunsetclimber said...
Aug. 6, 2009 at 10:12 pm
i don't watch a lot of t.v. but it would make sense that the media would play a part in suicides. this is a great article and highlights one of the reasons teens commit suicide.
aivilo said...
Aug. 6, 2009 at 5:42 pm
i agree! very good writing style!
Mikhal W. said...
Jun. 18, 2009 at 8:34 pm
Teens do not commit suicide because they are attention hungry. It is because they want to end their pain or misery. The media has plenty of influence, but not in this area. Have you ever felt suicidal? If you had I think you would understand.
james O. said...
Jun. 2, 2009 at 3:53 pm
ok this is what i think i think your right but the only reson we are so controld by the media is cuz we dont know what to look for so they take advantage of that so i think we are to blame the lake of education to aslong with the media
Meagan:] said...
May 19, 2009 at 4:21 am
You make a good point by the media influencing suicides. There have been many school shootings and suicides, like Columbine where the shooters were given alot of attention over the media. I think the media should just give the minimum amount of information and skip all the background stories and details.
HOPEMVP said...
May 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm
I hope nobody here is the next victim
AliciaGoes_Rawr said...
May 18, 2009 at 1:32 pm
This is very good. Many people don't want to accept the fact that media has alot of control of what we think and do, this is an example how how much the media is in control of how young (and older) minds work..
Loveless_girl said...
Mar. 27, 2009 at 11:10 pm
this is not true most teens commit suicide becuase of other the eyes of the media they r only a stiry waitin to be publised.....the world the wars the death of ppl or loved ones or abuse this may be one of the reason they commite suicide....the media..they kno nothing of the children tat feel or try o had commited sucide...."Trust in others is tho some of the word=s tat come from man's lips is a lie. Yet it may be the truth so listen to them very carefully befor it's to... (more »)
LoveHate said...
Mar. 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm
Ok I'm very sorry but i think that i would have to disagree with some of this, that is not all true, some teens just uh.. idk, media does somewhat have an impact but not always, some dont care, they just want to leave, find a way to escape this place...
Descant This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 22, 2009 at 9:54 am
Well-done article on an important subject, but the second half of your second-to-last paragraph left me with a concern. If the mental health issues of those who commit suicide are emphasized, that might send the message that mental or emotional disorders inevitably lead to suicide. For those of us experiencing such troubles, the person who committed suicide WOULD seem "just like us." It is possible to live a normal, happy life with a mental health problem, but focus on negative outcomes can be d... (more »)
shakespeare418 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Dec. 31, 2009 at 9:29 am
Very well said. Me too. As I read this article, I thought how the media needs to be highlighting people conquering mental illnesses more often because it truly is a fight that is all too often lost.
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