Spike in Suicides Followed Death of Robin Williams

Researchers can't prove his suicide caused copycats, but the numbers did rise after he died
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 8, 2018 8:19 AM CST
Spike in Suicides Followed Death of Robin Williams
In this April 28, 2012, file photo, Robin Williams appears at the 2012 Comedy Awards in New York.   (AP Photo/Charles Sykes, file)

The world was shocked by the August 2014 death of Robin Williams, but "middle-aged men in despair" may have taken his suicide especially hard, Reuters notes. For a study published Wednesday in Plos One, researchers sifted through CDC data from 1999 through 2015 and found that there was a "marked increase" in the number of suicides from right after Williams' death through the end of 2014, and that the monthly number of suicides continued to rise throughout 2015 as well. There were 18,690 suicides from August 2014 to December 2014, which the scientists say was a nearly 10% increase from the expected number based on data extrapolations. Among individuals ages 30 to 44, the spike was even greater during that period—about 13%—and there was a 32% increase in suicides by suffocation, which is how Williams died (he asphyxiated after hanging himself).

The study admits it can't prove Williams' death was the direct cause of any "copycat" suicides—there may have been other contributing factors or misclassifications—but it says his death, and the accompanying media coverage, "might have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population … to move from suicidal ideation to attempt." The study notes suicides within the general population often spike after a celebrity suicide, but headlines on Williams were particularly prevalent, and social media (which wasn't a force when, say, Kurt Cobain died in 1994) may have exacerbated the exposure. The study says the effects of celebrity suicides are concerning enough that the World Health Organization has put out guidance for journalists on responsibly reporting high-profile deaths such as Williams'. (Williams' wife talks about his last 10 devastating months.)

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