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When our natural fascination about someone famous can turn into something entirely darker

Patricia Casey


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Sensitive subject: experts are concerned that the intense media coverage over Caroline Flack’s death could lead to a rise in suicides

Sensitive subject: experts are concerned that the intense media coverage over Caroline Flack’s death could lead to a rise in suicides

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Sensitive subject: experts are concerned that the intense media coverage over Caroline Flack’s death could lead to a rise in suicides

Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Caroline Flack. I don't watch Love Island or read any celebrity news. She took her own life on February 15 and, since then, there has been relentless daily coverage.

So now, even without wanting to, I know about her love life, her mental health problems, her family, her childhood and her court appearances, which are nobody's business except hers, her family's and her boyfriend's.

Her vulnerable personality has been mentioned and her family have released Instagram posts composed by her, but left unposted before her tragic death. Her life and death are now an open book. Some comments have been vitriolic, some lionising. All have been extremely disconcerting.

There have been calls for a law in her name to ban trolling on social media. The complexity of achieving this has been lost in the torrent of emotion, but it did not stop almost three-quarters of a million people signing the petition.

The irony is that the social media and gossip magazines that promoted her celebrity status are now being condemned for their role in bringing about her death.

There is a further problem that those who are writing about Flack appear to have forgotten that the frenetic focus on the suicide of a high-profile individual may itself trigger other suicides.

The history of this dates back to German literature and to a character called Werther. A classic by Goethe, called The Sorrows of Young Werther, captured the idea of suicide contagion.

Werther shot himself with a pistol after his love for a girl was met with rejection. After the publication of the book in 1774 many young men imitated this behaviour. The term 'copycat suicide' emanated from this novel.

Far from being fanciful, or outdated, the 'Werther effect' is now supported by a large body of research.

A simple case study carried out by Paul Yip, a suicidologist, considered the impact of the death of a famous pop star in April 2003 on the suicide rate in Taiwan.

There was extensive media coverage of the death and the president attended the funeral. The upshot was a significant increase in deaths by the same method.

Further data-based studies of the 'contagion effect' show that there may be clusters of suicide in schools or in the same locality after a high-profile suicide.

It is likely that Caroline Flack, a celebrity, will have been a role model to millions of young women seeking fame. Amazingly, a survey of high school teens in the US found that 54% wanted to be famous, with 1% wanting office work and 4% hoping to become teachers.

Suicide is a legitimate issue for public discussion, but there should also be moderation. We have to blend freedom of speech with a healthy discussion around the problem and its prevention.

Evidence has emerged that for individuals in crisis, the manner of reporting may have an influence.

The more information about the victim that is made public, the more likely are individuals to identify the resemblance between their plight and that of the suicide victim.

Adulation of the person who has died may stimulate suicidal thoughts and fantasies of realising their fame in those lacking self-worth and seeking admiration.

Guidelines on reporting have been drawn up for the media and these have two objectives. One is to avoid idealising suicide or the victim, as positive or courageous; the other is focused on minimising the distress of the family in the manner of reporting.

The media guidelines point out that mentioning suicide in the headline, providing step-by-step details of the manner of death and the content of the suicide note may increase the risk.

Editors are clearly enthused by stories that sell their papers and magazines. But there are ongoing worries that the style and volume of coverage of Caroline Flack's death are paving the way for a spike in deaths by suicide.

Patricia Casey is a consultant psychiatrist. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090 or Lifeline 0808 808 8000

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