Science

Suicides spiked 10 percent in months after death of Robin Williams

epa04349886 (FILE) A file photo dated 05 December 2011 shows US actor and comedian Robin Williams posing for photographs in Sydney, Australia. Reports on 11 August 2014 state that Oscar-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams has been found dead in his home, say authorities in Marin County, California. EPA/TRACEY NEARMY AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
Tracey Nearmy/EPA
Robin Williams

Suicides spiked after comedian and actor Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, Columbia University researchers have found, in what they believe was the first look at the impact of a high-profile celebrity suicide in the era of the 24/7 news cycle.

The researchers at the university’s Mailman School of Public Health found a 10 percent increase in suicides in the period from August to December 2014, after Williams’s death on Aug. 11, 2014.

Suicides by suffocation increased by 32 percent, while suicides by all other methods rose 3 percent, researchers said in a statement from the university. The “suffocation” category includes hanging, is the method Williams used.

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Researchers said 16,849 suicides would be expected from August to December 2014, but 18,690 suicides were reported.

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“Although we cannot determine with certainty that these deaths are attributable to the death of Robin Williams, we found both a rapid increase in suicides in August 2014, and specifically suffocation suicides, that paralleled the time and method of Williams’ death,” David S. Fink, a postdoctoral researcher who was the first author of the study, said in a statement.

Details of Williams’s suicide were widely reported, but the initial reports did not mention he had struggled with a form of dementia, the researchers said.

Men 3o to 44 were particularly affected. “Williams’ death may have provided the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population, especially middle-aged men in despair, to move from suicidal ideation to attempt,” said Fink.

Previous research has shown that the number of suicides increases following a high-profile celebrity suicide, but the study is the first that authors were aware of that looks at the impact in the modern era.

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In an e-mail, Fink said it’s not known if the spike was made worse by today’s media environment.

“However, we do think that this is an area of study that deserves future attention,” he said. “Our point about the 24-hour news cycle was to highlight the lack of information we have about the effects of living in today’s world, i.e., a world where people are inundated with media, from a variety of different sources, throughout the entire day.”

“Future research is needed to better understand the effect of receiving constant messages from different sources throughout one’s day,” he said.