Updated 20 February 2018

Did Robin Williams' suicide spur 'copycat' acts?

The way death is reported and covered by both traditional and social media may contribute to an increase in suicides.


Fans around the world were shocked when comedian and actor Robin Williams took his own life in 2014. But the tragedy didn't stop there: Researchers now believe his grim death spawned a rash of "copycat" suicides.

In the five months after Williams hanged himself inside his California home, US suicides went up nearly 10%, according to a new study. A previous Health24 article suggests Williams' death was linked to depression. Similar data is not available for South Africa. 

Suicide very complex

During that same time period, the rates of death by suffocation (a category that includes hanging) rose by 32%. All other methods of suicide went up by 3%, the researchers said. The increases were greatest among men aged 30 to 44. The study was published online in PLOS One.

"Suicide is very complex and it arises from a confluence of factors," said study lead author David Fink, of Columbia University's School of Public Health in New York.

But Fink said when someone like Robin Williams kills himself, the way that death is reported and covered by both traditional and social media may contribute to an increase in suicides.

Dr Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York, agreed that hearing about other people's suicides can boost the risk of suicide in vulnerable people.

A beloved person

"Although this study can't make a definitive case for cause and effect, we do know that there's what's referred to as contagion when there's a suicide in the immediate family, in a school or in a community, or by a public figure," Borenstein said.

"Because Robin Williams was such a beloved person publicly, his suicide really received a lot of attention, and that may have increased the risk for other people to attempt suicide," Borenstein added.

Williams was 63 when he died in August 2014. Besides his history with depression, he had also been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia (linked to Parkinson's disease). However, his dementia diagnosis wasn't reported at the time of his death, according to researchers.

For the study, researchers reviewed suicide data from 1999 through 2015 in the United States. From August 2014 through December 2014, their statistical analysis projected that there should be just under 17 000 suicides. Instead, there were just under 18 700 suicides. That meant there were more than 1 800 unexpected suicides during that time.

The study authors noted that when Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band Nirvana, died by suicide in 1994, there wasn't a similar spike in suicides. They said this may be because Cobain's death was reported in a less sensational manner with few details provided – at least initially. Also, social media wasn't as widespread as it is now.

The safe thing to do

Whatever the reason behind the increase found in the new study, Borenstein said it's important to remember that anyone who attempts suicide or dies by suicide has a psychiatric condition that is treatable.

"Some people think it's dangerous to talk about suicide and they're afraid to say anything about it. Yet studies have shown that bringing it up is the safe thing to do. Then people can assist their loved one in receiving appropriate treatment," Borenstein said.

"If your loved one is saying things like 'I wish I were dead', this is an emergency. If you saw them clutching their chest, you'd call 911. This is the same type of emergency," he added.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Feeling hopeless, having no purpose or being a burden to others
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Seeking revenge or showing rage
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits these signs, don't leave the person alone. Remove anything that could be used in a suicide attempt (such as firearms or drugs). Call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) suicide emergency number: 0800 567 567 or 24hr Helpline: 0800 12 13 14.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons