By Helen Fay
Jeffrey Epstein – a publicly disgraced financier – died by suicide while awaiting trial for charges of sex trafficking. Unsurprisingly, due to the high-profile nature of his case, reports of his suicide have since proliferated across the globe.
Widespread coverage of suicide is usually met with concerns from mental health professionals. These concerns are not unfounded – there is substantial evidence demonstrating that media reports of suicide can initiate an increase in suicide rates, a phenomenon known as the Werther effect. This effect is more pronounced following coverage of the suicide of a public figure. Accordingly, the World Health Organisation advise that:
“Vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”
Yet, it would be incorrect to conclude that all media coverage of suicide is harmful. Despite compelling evidence, research in the field is characterised by inconsistent findings, with a proportion of research showing no effect. Publication bias may overestimate the occurrence of the Werther effect. Due to legitimate challenges in designing ethically acceptable studies, most research investigating media influences on suicide rates employ an ecological aggregate design, which assesses change in suicide rates following a specific media exposure. These studies are typically undertaken post-hoc in response to known ‘epidemics’ or high-profile harmful depictions (e.g., celebrity suicide, high-lethality methods).
The variability of media content may also contribute to these inconsistent findings. There are three well-known mechanisms which encourage the Werther effect: i) the introduction of a novel method to a “vulnerable” population; ii) personal identification with the story of the deceased; and iii) the generation of acceptable impressions of suicide by the media (particularly following celebrity suicides). Focusing on the latter mechanism, the media typically frames suicide in a positive manner (e.g., by glorifying the deceased). However, the journalistic ‘norm’ of framing suicide positively could theoretically explain the consistency by which the media is associated with heightened suicide rates, rather than a direct link.
The media’s framing of Epstein’s suicide was atypical. Due to Epstein’s disgraced position, his suicide was characterised as a “cowardly” and an immoral act. Prior research indicates that negative characterisations of suicide are less likely to have deleterious effects. To illustrate, following the suicide of Robin Williams, the press celebrated him as a successful and inspirational entertainer who could not overcome depression – suicide rates following his death increased by 10% (an additional 1841 suicide deaths in the US). In contrast, suicide rates were unaffected following the death of Kurt Cobain whose suicide received widespread condemnation by the press. Quantifying this notion, Stack’s review found that stories with negative descriptions of suicide were 99% less likely to prompt suicide ‘contagion’.
As early as Durkheim’s (1897) Le Suicide, it has been recognised that cultural influences shape attitudes towards suicide. Cultural differences in attitudes correspond with variations in suicide rates, with more permissive attitudes linked to increased suicide rates. The morality attached to suicide is intrinsically linked to the media and its ability to influence public opinion en masse. Some coverage can normalise suicide as a legitimate response to distress. However, Epstein’s alleged crimes – paedophilia and sex trafficking – are almost universally met with societal contempt. Consequently, Epstein, and the act of suicide were typified as immoral, and are unlikely to prompt suicide suggestion. Indeed, media coverage of the suicides of those in disrepute, such as criminals, are rarely accompanied by an increase in suicide rates.
Rather than viewing all coverage of suicide as detrimental, it is important to consider the specific characteristics of news coverage which could encourage suicidal behaviour. In reference to the coverage of Epstein’s death, the negative framing of his suicide, together with an immoral character appraisal could negate the potential harms associated with widespread news attention. Despite this, it would be extremely contentious to suggest that newspapers should frame suicide as an immoral act. The coverage of Epstein’s death was devoid of compassion towards the bereaved, who are known to be particularly vulnerable following a suicide. Instead, journalists should strike a balance between displaying compassion towards the bereaved and avoiding romanticised depictions of suicide, including those which sanctify the deceased.
A Note on Conspiracy Theories:
Numerous conspiracy theories contend that Epstein’s death cannot be explained by suicide. Despite this, news reports on the topic still present a wide-reaching narrative which frames suicide as unacceptable. Conspiracy stories do not necessarily counteract the influence of reporting on suicide. Suicide rates increased following Marilyn Monroe’s (12% in the US, 9% in the UK) and Robin Williams’ (9.8% in the US) suicide deaths, despite a body of conspiracy theories circulating which disputing suicide as their cause of death.
Helen Fay is a PhD Researcher in Population Health Science, Bristol Medical School. Her PhD investigates media influences on decision-making pertaining to suicide methods.
If you or anyone you know is affected by the issues covered in this blog, you can contact the Samaritans for free from any telephone on 116 123 in the UK. Alternatively you can email firstname.lastname@example.org for details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of their trained volunteers face to face. The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) has details of support organisations in other countries.