The notion that one could commit suicide as a result of a celebrity committing suicide is not only a bizarre one but also quite accurate, as seen in the cases of Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams.
According to Blood and Pirkis (2001), individuals may be less inclined to inhibit committing suicide if they witnessed someone whose suicide was seen as acceptable by the media, despite any negative consequences attached to it. This is known as the Werther effect; a sudden increase in suicides after a widely public prominent suicide for which a causal association has been found, between nonfictional reporting of suicide and actual suicide. As Bandura's social cognitive theory explains, the media reinforces behaviours that were previously learned but had been inhibited.
The individual imitating the celebrity’s behaviour could use different methods to identify with them. Vertical identification is defined when ‘ordinary’ individuals copy the behaviour of supposedly superior people like individuals. On the other hand, the individual may look for similarities between themselves and the celebrity, known as horizontal identification (Blood & Pirkis, 2001). Wasserman (1984) provides further types of individual suicides that can be imitated.
One type occurs as a result of group or symbolic pressures which cause the individual to commit suicide such as the Buddhist monks in Vietnam in 1963. Another type occurs when individuals who may have experienced some sort of failure or problem compare themselves with others who are in similar occupations and as a result, commit suicide. However this only occurs for a very small percentage of the population.
It’s obvious that celebrity suicides are more likely to generate mass media publicity compared to other suicides therefore, a possible reason for the increase of suicide rates may actually be due to the fact that such suicides are widely publicised rather than the actual celebrity status. Furthermore, people may feel that they can identify with some of the celebrity’s characteristics, increasing the probability of committing suicide (Wasserman,1984). It's important to note that the effect of the media on suicidal behaviour is strongest when both people come from the same demographic group e.g. elderly.
Blood and Pirkis (2001) highlight that the individual who's imitating the model's behaviour weighs up the extent to which the model's behaviour is reinforced in deciding whether to imitate it. For instance, if a suicide is seen as acceptable, then people may be more likely to be influenced by it. Plus, the greater the number of models who reinforce suicidal behaviour, and the more often an individuals models' behaviour is reported, the greater the likelihood of imitation.
There are also other explanations to explain the reason for the increased rates of suicide after a media publication of suicide. The precipitation hypothesis suggests that the suicides would have still occurred and that the media only hastens the suicides through modelling, so the long-term suicide rate is actually unaltered (Blood & Pirkis, 2001).
Another explanation is that a grief reaction is formed when the media publicises suicide and this reaction causes others to commit suicide, rather than the imitation effect of copying the suicidal behaviour.
The cultivation theory by Gerber explains that TV creates distorted work views which may promote negative feelings and behaviour and because they are so prominent and dominate our daily life, this causes the increased suicide rates. Although, TV messages are generally distinct from reality, the continuous exposure leads them to adopt the TV's view of society which is why for example, people overestimate crime rates in their society (Blood & Pirkis, 2001).
Clearly people talk their own lives for a variety of complex reasons but more disturbingly is the fact that some of these suicides are a result of a media and cultural phenomenon.
Blood, R.W., & Pirkis, J. (2001). Suicide and the media: Part III. Theoretical issues. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 22, 163-169.
Wasserman, I. M. (1984). Imitation and suicide: A reexamination of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review. 49, 427– 436.