In wake of Robin Williams' death, experts warn of suicide-reporting risks

Graphic or inflated media coverage of suicides can prompt imitative behavior by at-risk individuals, an expert from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday, one day after the death of Robin Williams.

Robin Williams
Robin Williams

ATLANTA: Graphic or inflated media coverage of suicides can prompt imitative behavior by at-risk individuals, an expert from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday, one day after the death of Robin Williams.

Comedic genius and Oscar-winner Williams died Monday in California at age 63 of an apparent suicide. Since the news broke Monday afternoon, there has been an outpouring of support on social media, as well as a dearth of assumptions about Williams’ suffering and misconceptions surrounding depression and suicide.

Dr. Alex Crosby, who serves as chief in the surveillance branch of the Division of Violence Prevention at the CDC, said glamorized coverage of a suicide can be fatal for at-risk individuals. In the case of a celebrity, he said, media should try to avoid making the coverage front-page news or describing exactly how the victim carried it out.

What media might do instead, suggested Crosby, is offer prevention resources, such as the national crisis hotline, which is 1-800-273-8255 in the US. The CDC also has a link on its website on suicide reporting tips for journalists.

Some treatments have proven to be effective, said Crosby. One major barrier, however, is overcoming the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicidal behavior. A former surgeon general once discussed "thinking of mental illness as a brain disease," he said.

In addition to media reports about suicides, crafting the right message for a public awareness campaign is complicated because of the issues that need to be considered so that it can help people suffering rather than drive them away, said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director at the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.                                              

SAVE develops suicide prevention campaigns, often aimed at various demographics, such as men, women, teenagers, senior citizens, and Native Americans, said Reidenberg. The organization has to consider the science behind the messaging of campaigns, including colors, font size, placement, and even the use of celebrities, he added.

"It’s far more complicated and hard to do than people realize," said Reidenberg.

He said at-risk or vulnerable individuals may have "more maladaptive coping skills" after seeing a message, meaning they may withdraw instead of seeking help because they may feel like it "minimizes or misses what they’re really going through."

While Reidenberg said there’s more work to be done, websites, like SAVE, work to dispel myths about sufferers.

The Entertainment Industries Council has social media guidelines for mental health promotion and suicide prevention posted online.

"Avoid focusing your communications solely on the extent and consequences of suicide," the document states, followed by a recommendation for keeping communications safe, which includes avoiding details like location and method of suicide.

On Tuesday, the Marin County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference during which details of Williams’ death were released. Some news outlets chose to use the graphic description in tweets and stories.

"Everything we released today would be a matter of public record, thus it was released," assistant chief deputy coroner Lt. Keith Boyd wrote in an email to PRWeek.

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