A nationwide analysis of newspaper coverage relating to suicides finds that high-profile coverage is linked to incidence of so-called “copycat suicides” among teenagers.

The new study – published in The Lancet Psychiatry – notes that, although there have been longstanding concerns about extensive media coverage of “suicide outbreaks” and their possible influence on “suicide cluster events,” few studies have investigated this connection. The study also suggests that when research has tackled this subject, evidence has often been anecdotal, with selection bias and without a comparison group.

Conducted by researchers from New York State Psychiatric Institute, the new study is the first to compare a national sample of adolescent suicide clusters with a matched control of non-cluster suicides.

What previous research has suggested is that – overall – suicide rates rise following an increase in media reporting about suicide, and that the greater the amount of coverage is, the greater the rise will be.

These studies have also suggested that media reports portraying suicide negatively are less likely to be followed by a rise in suicides. There was also no reported link between a rise in suicide incidence and fictional accounts of suicide in the media. However, reporting of the suicides of political or entertainment celebrities is more likely to be followed by a rise in suicides.

These studies also found that the link between increased reporting on suicide and a rise in suicide rates applied to newspaper – rather than television – reporting.

The present study, therefore, aimed to identify the possible role of newspaper suicide stories in the initiation of these suicide clusters.

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Significantly more newspaper stories were published in the aftermath of a suicide that was closely followed by an additional suicide than those with no additional suicides.

The study identified 48 suicide clusters in people between 13 and 20 years old that occurred in the US between 1988 and 1996. Each of these clusters included 3-11 victims who killed themselves within 6 months of the first suicide.

These cluster communities were then matched by the researchers with control communities that were located within the same state as the corresponding cluster community, but from non-adjacent counties.

Retrospectively, 469 newspapers were examined for stories concerning suicide. These newspapers were published in the period between the first and second suicides in both the cluster and control communities.

The researchers discovered that significantly more newspaper stories were published in the aftermath of a suicide that was followed by an additional suicide within 6 months than those with no additional suicides within 6 months.

The association was strongest, the researchers say, for news stories about teenage suicides.

The researchers note that the cluster stories would also be more likely to be front page news, include headlines containing the word suicide, have accompanying pictures or provide a detailed description of the method used.

“Although we cannot show causality,” lead author Dr. Madelyn Gould explains, “our study indicates that media portrayals of suicide might have a role in the emergence of some teenage suicide clusters.”

She continues:

The findings constitute the first available information on the circumstances differentiating a suicide that leads to a suicide cluster from one that does not. Our research also emphasizes the importance of adherence to media guidelines that discourage reporters from using too much detailed or graphic representations of suicides.”

Writing in a linked comment, Jane Pirkis and Jo Robinson, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, suggest that newer forms of internet media should also be investigated for links to cluster suicides.

“It makes intuitive sense,” they write, “that less regulated, more volatile, and more interactive media might have an even greater effect, particularly because young people are not only major consumers of these forms of media, but also the creators of their content.”

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study that found teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide following a concussion.