Suicide contagion and social media: The dangers of sharing ‘Genie, you’re free’

On Monday night, as fans around the world began to grieve Robin Williams’s death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — best known, in many circles, as the people behind the Oscars — sent out what may be the iconic social media image of Williams’s death.

More than 270,000 people have shared the tweet, which means that, per the analytics site Topsy, as many as 69 million people have seen it.

The problem? It violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide.

“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.”

Moutier is referring to a well-documented phenomenon, better-known as “copycat suicide,” in which media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way. Adolescents are most at risk of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like AFSP have also become particularly attentive to the role the Internet plays in romanticizing notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.

“The potential for online reports, photos/videos and stories to go viral makes it vital that online coverage of suicide follow site or industry safety recommendations,” one media guide reads.

But in the hours since @TheAcademy’s tweet went viral, professionals like Moutier have become concerned that it doesn’t, in fact, follow established safety recommendations. The starry sky from Disney’s Aladdin, and the written implication that suicide is somehow a liberating option, presents suicide in too celebratory a light, Moutier said.

Now that media is social, however, and anyone can go viral, it’s more difficult to educate influencers on those issues. (It’s unclear who at the Academy sent the tweet, and the Academy did not respond to requests for further comment.) In either case, Moutier has some advice for organizations and individuals talking about Williams’s death online: Be sure to acknowledge that suicide has underlying issues — and those issues can be addressed. The focus, she adds, should be on his incredible life. It certainly shouldn’t celebrate or glorify how he died.

“A quarter of the population suffers from mental health issues that could potentially drive suicidal thoughts,” Moutier said. “This is a very important issue, from a public health standpoint, and one we need to bring to light.”

Lt. Keith Boyd of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office said the body of Robin Williams was found by his assistant on the morning of Aug. 11. The comedian and actor had apparently hanged himself with a belt. (Reuters)

Read more: Older white males like Williams face a higher suicide risk

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · August 12