People who are already considering suicide may act on their thoughts definitively when they hear about other individuals taking their own lives, particularly if the suicide was committed by a popular personality.
Last week, celebrity chef Bourdain took his own life just three days after fashion designer Spade killed herself.
Mental health professionals are now encouraging families to reach out to members who might have suicidal tendencies.
Specialists are also calling for cautious journalism and advised writers and broadcasters against using sensationalized headlines when reporting about suicide. The health authorities also advised against reporting graphic suicide details, particularly on what the celebrity used in committing the act.
Suicide Contagion Is A Real Phenomenon
John Ackerman, the coordinator in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital, explained that people who are already battling the thoughts of committing suicide may have, at one point, researched about how others dealt with the same experience. Celebrity suicides were particularly appealing because people tend to look up to them and identify with them.
"[W]hen you've got high-profile people who are successful and who the world views as having a lot going for them and they die by suicide, it can generate feelings of hopelessness," Ackerman said.
Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in child psychiatry at Columbia University, and Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, echoed the same opinion.
Gould has studied suicide contagion for considerable years and attests that the phenomenon is real. She also highlighted how sensationalized media coverage of high-profile suicides may influence the thinking of an already vulnerable person.
"When I heard about Bourdain, I was sad for him and for all the people who were going to hear about it, and I am also sad for people who might be influenced by it," Gould said.
For Marshall, the detailed reporting of how celebrities killed themselves may act as possible triggering mechanism.
"The details can fill in the picture. The impact feels much closer when it's someone in the public eye because we feel we know them and we make assumptions about their life," Marshall explained.
A study conducted following Robin Williams's death in 2014 revealed that suicide rates across the United States increased by almost 10 percent. Specifically, the study noted an additional 2,000 deaths by suicide in the aftermath of Williams's demise.
A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following Marilyn Monroe's death in 1962 found that suicide rates in the country increased by 12 percent from the previous year.
A similar effect is being observed following Bourdain's death. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has seen an uptick of 25 percent in the suicide-related calls over the last two days of Bourdain's death. This is a notable increase compared to the same period of the previous week.
Frances Gonzales, director of communication for the Lifeline, said media coverage has also raised awareness about the helpline when they mention it during reporting. The Lifeline number 1-800-273-8255 has since been busy deescalating moments of crisis and helping people expand their resilience against depression.
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, meanwhile, saw an increase of about 25 percent to 30 percent people seeking help either through calls or text services.
Ellen Lovejoy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, shared that NJ Hopeline in New Jersey has seen a 70 percent increase in helpline calls after Bourdain's death.