Celebrity Deaths May Trigger Suicide

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 8, 2000 -- Do you remember where you were when Elvis died, when John Lennon was shot? Did you stay glued to the screen during Princess Diana's hours-long funeral procession? Did a tear come to your eye when you saw the small, white bouquet from her sons?

If so, you are not alone. Big-time celebrities affect our lives in intimate ways. Today, through television and the Internet, the lives of luminaries like Leno and Letterman, Cher and Madonna, can become interwoven with our own. And if a celebrity who matters to us suddenly dies, we care.

Now, medical research from Great Britain reveals a surprising side effect of our "celebrity connection." In the week after Princess Di's death, the number of people in England and Wales who intentionally harmed themselves increased by almost 45%. And during the month after her funeral, suicides rose by nearly 20%. The authors believe Diana's death added to existing feelings of sadness and distress in these people. For them, this public tragedy was a final, private burden that pushed some of them over the edge.

The increase in suicides was most notable among women, up about a third, according to the study published in the November British Journal of Psychiatry. Among women aged 25-44, the rate of suicide increased more than 45%.

"We know there is a 'contagion factor' in suicide," Jeremy Kisch, PhD, tells WebMD. "We know when a teenager commits suicide, there's increased danger someone else in the same school may also commit suicide. Most often, suicide is an impulsive act. In the case of Princess Diana's death, there may have been people who already felt suicidal. When they heard the news, it heightened their own preoccupation with death."

Kisch, who reviewed the article, is senior director for clinical education at the National Mental Health Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Not just the loss of a celebrity, but the loss of a friend or family member may also plunge someone into a painful re-examination of their life, Troy L. Thompson, II, MD, tells WebMD in an objective interview.


"Even a holiday or birthday can do it," says Thompson, a psychiatry professor at Thomas Jefferson Medical University in Philadelphia. "These are times when people reflect on their lives and ask whether they've gotten where they wanted to."

A person who is feeling depressed should seek care, Thompson stresses.

"If you feel down in the dumps -- not just for one day but for many days -- this should be viewed as a medical symptom, like a cough," he says. "See your doctor, and request a complete physical exam. Keep in mind that depression may be a sign of physical illness. A health care professional should review all your medications, since some medications may lead to depression."

In addition to your primary care physician, advice from a mental health professional can be very helpful, says Kisch. Check your health insurance card, which may have a 1-800 number for mental health services printed on the back.

However, when someone is really feeling suicidal, waiting for a professional appointment, even just for a day or two, may feel like a very long time, Kisch says. In that situation, reach out to someone -- a friend or family member -- for help.

"Suicide is very much an impulse of the moment, so anything you can do to create some postponement, some thinking process, will be helpful," Kisch tells WebMD. "What will work may vary from person to person, but anything that puts some pause between initial impulse and the action is a good idea. If you feel you are in real danger of harming yourself, go to a hospital emergency room."