Suicide is presently one of the biggest issues in medicine and public health around the world. Past scientific research has shown that after media reports on a suicide case -- especially of someone famous -- not only does the number of suicides go up, but a majority of the people who kill themselves are the same sex as the celebrity and use similar methods. One such example was Hong Kong entertainer Leslie Cheung (張國榮).
Another example is Taiwanese entertainer Ni Min-jan (倪敏然), who committed suicide by hanging himself in April 2005. The local media had extensive and concentrated coverage of the incident for a number of weeks. A research group I led immediately launched three studies on people who were depressed, or who had committed or attempted suicide. The studies proved that the media's extensive reports on the incident had produced a mimic effect.
Our interviews with people suffering from depression and people who had attempted suicide revealed that 90 percent admitted to having read these reports. Of the former, 39 percent said the news had a negative impact on them, while 23.4 percent of the latter said the same. In the three weeks following Ni's death, media reporting led to a 55 percent increase in the number of people who unsuccessfully attempted suicide, with men outnumbering women by 2.6 times.
Meanwhile, the reports led 5.5 percent of people suffering from depression to attempt suicide, increasing the risk by 41 times. This unhealthy reaction to the news lasted as long as 40 days. Most importantly, the risk that people who were depressed or had attempted suicide over the past year would try again was 20 and 52 times greater respectively.
The media reports had negative effects on these groups in four ways -- they provided a model for imitation, rationalized suicide, contributed to a feeling of hopelessness and taught them ways to kill themselves. One respondent described how "I always paid attention to reports describing how the noose was thrown over a tree branch."
In 2000 the WHO set out standards for reporting specific suicide cases in its Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals (www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/426/pdf). When the local media reported on Ni's death, the articles were full of sympathy, even extolling him as a martyr. His career as an entertainer was highly praised, he was glorified at his funeral and some even suggested erecting a memorial tablet. This violates almost all the standards laid out in the report.
For those already at high risk of suicide -- people who are depressed, alcoholic, have compulsive disorders or have experienced failures with their friends, health, work or finances -- being exposed to reports about suicide only elevates the risk. When reporting on suicide, especially actual suicide cases, the media must be very careful. The government and private organizations should monitor suicide-related news and offer criticism and suggestions for improvement to reduce the loss of precious life.
Andrew Cheng is a researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of Biomedical Sciences.
Translated by Marc Langer