Newspaper reporting of suicide linked with teenage suicide clusters

Image: PD

1. The number of reports concerning the first suicide in a cluster was found to be significantly higher than the number of reports following an isolated suicide. 

2. The reports concerning the first suicide in a cluster are more detailed and prominently placed (i.e. front page).  

Evidence Rating Level: 3 (Average)           

Study Rundown: Although there has been a great deal of research on purely temporal (mass) suicide clusters, there has been relatively few studies exploring spatiotemporal (point) suicide clusters. In this retrospective study, investigators looked for an association between teenage point suicide clusters and increased media coverage. The researchers used suicide data from 48 US states and restricted their demographic to those between the ages of 13 and 20. Once clusters were identified, a control group of non-cluster suicides was established. Non-cluster suicides included those individuals who committed suicide in the same state, but at least a year apart from any point cluster. A comprehensive newspaper database was created, which encompassed both the communities in which clusters occurred and those in which non-cluster suicides took place.

Analysis revealed that the mean number of news reports after the first suicide in a cluster (index suicide) was higher than the mean number of reports after a non-cluster suicide. Additionally the study showed that local reports about any suicidal individuals were increased following an index suicide. This suggests that the level of new coverage following suicides may, at least in part, explain the temporary elevations in the incidence of suicide in nearby locations. Of crucial note, this study design merely notes an association but cannot establish a causal relationship. Lastly, it should be noted that while the most popular newspapers in each community were identified, the researchers were not able to find out the level of exposure suicide victims had to various news sources.

Click to read the study, published today in The Lancet Psychiatry

Relevant Reading: An adolescent suicide cluster and the possible role of electronic communication technology

In-Depth [case-control]: This study assessed the correlation between point suicide clusters and newspaper reports of suicide. In order to identify point clusters, the researchers used a Scan statistic, which was used to find an increased incidence of disease in specific times and places. 53 clusters were identified between 1988 and 1996. The mean number of suicides in each cluster was 3.88. Two control (non-cluster) communities were matched with each cluster community. The data demonstrated that the mean number of reports following an index suicide was higher than the mean number of reports following a non-cluster suicide. Index suicides were reported 25% of the time, compared to 14% of the time in non-cluster suicides (p = 0.0003). Additionally, any suicidal individuals with a spatiotemporal relationship to an index suicide received more coverage (median: four stories) than suicidal individuals in non-cluster communities (median: three stories) (p < 0.0001). Finally, reports about index suicides were more detailed (included a picture) and more prominently placed (front-page) (p = 0.001, p = 0.012).

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