Celebrity Suicides Ignite Behavioral Contagion

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

In modern society, individuals who possess a large amount of fame and wealth tend to be idolized, adored, and emulated daily. As a result, when a celebrity takes their life, their fanbase is left grieving and confused, and as loyal fans, some may choose to follow this unfortunate course of action.

Defining the Contagion

Suicide contagion is the increase in suicide attempts and completed suicides following exposure to a publicized suicide in the media or one’s personal circle. Following celebrity suicides, research has been done in various countries, including The Republic of South Korea and the United States, that has proved a correlation between the suicide of prominent celebrities and a rise in suicide rates. These studies compared the suicide rates before and after celebrity suicides, as well as the rates of the different suicide methods used in the same time periods. Most suicides that follow a celebrity suicide are often committed using the same method. Some studies compared the suicide rate from the month of the celebrity suicide to the same time the year before.

These suicides are called ‘copycat suicides.’ One of the biggest reasons for copycat suicides is mass media. The earliest known association between the media and copycat suicide comes from 1774 when printed books, newspapers, and magazines were the only mass media outlets. The form of media has evolved and enlarged over the past decades, and the number and popularity of influential individuals have skyrocketed, inducing an influx of copycat suicides.

The Werther Effect

In 1774, German author Johann Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther. The semi-autobiographical epistolary novel ends with the title character dressed in boots, a yellow vest, a blue coat, sitting at his desk with an open book, and shooting himself. In the few years after the book was published, reports of several young people mimicking Werther’s desperate act caused the book to be banned in several countries.

It wasn’t until 1974 when sociologist David Phillips coined the term “the Werther Effect” to describe the imitation of suicidal behaviors from overly publicized suicides. After further research, Dr. Phillips discovered that a highly publicized suicide increased the suicide rate by an average of two percent over the next month. “Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it,” Dr. Phillips said.

In South Korea, the fourth country on the list of countries with the highest suicide rates, copycat suicides are prevalent. In 2008, one of the county’s most popular actresses, Choi Jin-Sil, committed suicide by hanging. In the three weeks after her death, the suicide rate rose by over 62%. The use of the method of hanging also increased by over 30%, according to research done by Yonsei University.

There are examples of the Werther Effect in the United States as well. When American actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, there was an approximate 10% hike in the suicide rate from August to December of that year, as stated in a study done by the Department of Epidemiology at Colombia University. Additionally, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Helpline (NSPL) increased by up to 300% from the day before- from between 4,000 to 6,000 calls per day to 12,972. Normally, suicide rates have predictable patterns: an increase in spring, and a smaller increase at the beginning of summer. A highly publicized suicide can cause a sudden and unexpected spike in suicide rates. In the two months after actress Marilyn Monroe’s death was ruled a suicide, there were 330 “excess” deaths by suicide in the U.S and 60 in the United Kingdom.

In Japan, copycat suicides are described with the term, “Yukko Syndrome.” In April 1986, Japanese singer Okada Yukiko, also called “Yukko”, instantly died after jumping off of a seven-story building. Her death incited a significant increase in suicides in Japan in the following months. In May alone, there were 36 suicides, most of which were teenagers who jumped off buildings.

External Factors Contributing to Werther Effect

Copycat suicides are more common among individuals who are already mentally vulnerable. This can be explained using Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning, which explains that learning behaviors are controlled by external influences rather than internal. One of the core concepts of this theory explains that individuals are able to learn behaviors through observation. When a vulnerable person is able to identify with a suicide victim, they may believe suicide to be a way out of their own pain.

Celebrity suicides are 14.3 times more likely to have a copycat effect than non-celebrity suicides. If a well-known celebrity takes their own life, the act may be seen as acceptable, making it easier for people with pre-existing depression to commit suicide themselves. Approximately half of the people who died by suicide had a known mental health condition.

Celebrity suicides can also lead to Death Thought Accessibility (DTA). Essentially, the DTA hypothesis states that if structures that protect people from death anxiety (e.g., self-esteem) are threatened, their mental accessibility to death-related thoughts will increase. In a study conducted in 2014, researchers discovered that DTA increased in mentally vulnerable individuals who thought about Robin Williams’ suicide.

Improper and increased media reporting of high-profile suicides are also known to play a part in the increasing rate of copycat suicides. Studies show that the upsurge in “copycat” suicides is particularly strong when the media reports on the suicide method that the celebrity used.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has mandated rules for safer and responsible reporting of suicides. However, research has concluded that media outlets don’t effectively follow these guidelines. Over 60% of articles about suicide from 5 prominent South Korean newspapers mentioned the method used and the suicide location, even though the WHO discourages including either of these pieces of information.

Every 40 seconds, someone from around the globe takes their own life, amounting to about 800,000 suicidal deaths every year. Copycat suicides are an unfortunate phenomenon prevalent in the world of mass media and celebrity fanbases. Research has proved that improperly reported high-profile suicides will experience the Werther effect, increasing the suicide rate in the months after the death.

Through Teen Lenses: Studies show that there is a rise in suicide rates after a celebrity suicide. Were you aware of this? If not, is it surprising to you? Why do you think this is, and do you think that there is anything that can be done about this?

“I was not as conscious about it until recently, maybe within the last year or so. I think many people find some deep connection with certain celebrities, whether that be through a character they put on screen or the messages they spread through music. This could happen when they  realize that they failed to find happiness in their life, and everything wasn’t as it seemed on the outside. I think the problem of suicide is really difficult to try and fix because it doesn’t have a clear answer. If you know someone that is deeply in love with a celebrity, make sure to check on them and remind them that celebrities are people that have their own problems, and try to separate that attachment to them. Also, if you have a friend that was attached to a celebrity that took their life, be sure to constantly be there for them and offer them a place to vent their feelings.”  Aya Zaraket, 18, Freshman at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 
“I didn’t know about this, but it’s not surprising. I think it’s because celebrities become role models to their fans. When they can’t solve their problems and their last resort is suicide, people will think that it’s the only way out and they should do the same thing. Celebrities should know that people follow them and they should take their steps carefully. ”  Syeda Amna, 17,  Senior at Thomas A. Edison High School, Alexandria, Virginia 
“Yes, I’m aware of this. I remember doing an assignment in AP Biology last year about the top 10 causes of death in 1900 vs. in 1990, and suicide, which wasn’t one of the top 10 causes in 1900, suddenly appeared in 1990. I assert that the reason behind this is that the media has blown up in the past 20-30 years, so people have heard about other individuals as well as celebrities committing suicide. Because people look up to these famous figures, they may think to themselves, “Oh, that solved their problems, maybe I should do that,” when they shouldn’t. From the data that I’ve seen, suicide rates climb somewhat exponentially, and we need to do something about this. Suicide isn’t a joke, and it’s preventable with the right resources. To this end, I believe that more awareness programs should be established, especially for younger adults and teens, so that individuals can know what to do to help someone who may be thinking about suicide, or they can help themselves if they’re having such thoughts.” Carolyn Soltani, 17, Senior at W.T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, Virginia