Mental Health

Suicide Rates Peak After Celebrities Commit Suicide; Reddit Forums Could Help Aid Interventions

suicide
Celebrity suicides could be predictors of future suicides, but interventions using social media can help. Casey Muir-Taylor, CC BY-ND 2.0.

A celebrity or public figure committing suicide always seems to attract national attention, leading the country into a discussion on the importance of understanding mental illness, and how to treat it. For example, when Robin Williams tragically passed away, his wide fan base was not only devastated, but made moves to discuss on social media how plights of the depressed should not be taken lightly. But what does this mean for those going through similar struggles? Can celebrity suicides impact the thoughts of those also wanting to end it all?

The researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are finding evidence that this is definitely the case. Examining Reddit’s popular suicide support forum, “SuicideWatch,” researchers looked to see how activity and conversations by those seeking help change after a celebrity takes their life. They found that often in the aftermath of a celebrity death, those on social media will discuss committing suicide more themselves, as their posts become more filled with anger and anxiety.

A theory, known as the “Werther effect” suggests that suicide rates and attempts will increase after a celebrity commits suicide. Previous studies looking into the Werther effect have examined suicide outcomes following this major event, but Georgia Tech’s new study aims to look at morale after the news in order to plan future interventions.

To gain further insight into the thought process of people contemplating suicide after such an event, Munum De Choudhry, a Georgia Tech assistant professor, and a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University looked at nearly 66,000 posts from 19,000 unique visitors to Reddit’s “SuicideWatch” forum. They examined the site between October 2013 and December 2014, looking specifically at how language changed after 10 reported celebrity suicides, including the death of Robin Williams in 2014.

They found that posts after celebrity suicides were covered in the news focused more on using “I” and “me” pronouns, while posters also seeming more resolute on committing suicide. For example, posts before the event were often in line with phrases like, “I need some help. … I feel I’m right on the edge,” while posts after tended to read, “I’ll be ending it this weekend.”

“Redditors tended to be more inwardly focused after celebrity suicide,” said co-leader Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins University in a recent press release. “They wrote less about other people. Posts about family and friends shifted to ‘I’ and ‘me.’ We saw more self-disclosure and sadness.” For the most part, Redditors did not seem to be going online to talk about the celebrity’s death, but instead to talk about their own lives and wanting to end them.

Overall, De Choudhury says that using Reddit to test the validity of the Werther effect gave her team further information on how to help suicidal individuals in a time where they may be most vulnerable. She suggests that when a celebrity suicide occurs, leaders of sub-Reddit groups could ask moderators to check the site more frequently, and monitor Redditors’ responses. Taking this a step further, developing algorithms could help assess the suicide risk score of some of these posters before and after a suicide, so that specialists can keep a close eye on when someone may need help.

Source: Mrinal Kumar, Dredze M, De Choudhury MD. Detecting changes in suicide content manifested in social media following celebrity suicides. 26th ACM Conference of Hypertext and Social Media. 2015.

 

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