Celebrity suicides do have profound impact on fans

Fans placed flowers and other mementos on Robin Williams' Walk of Fame star in Hollywood after he died Monday in an apparent suicide.
Fans placed flowers and other mementos on Robin Williams' Walk of Fame star in Hollywood after he died Monday in an apparent suicide. AP

The death of actor-comedian Robin Williams has seemingly stopped many Americans in their tracks.

Those of us who study suicide and its impact on people left behind are deeply saddened by his death, but we live and work with the reality of suicide's impact every day.

Over 650 Kentuckians die by suicide every year and each of these deaths leaves behind a wide range of family, close friends and even more distant relationships who are now reminded of their loss as the world discusses William's death.

For the last two years, our team at the University of Kentucky has investigated the impact of suicide on veterans, military family members, and community members through the Military Suicide Bereavement Study. This study was funded by Department of Defense's Military Suicide Research Consortium as an effort to address the military's own problems around suicide, as suicide deaths of active duty service members eclipsed combat deaths in 2012.

Our research team crisscrossed the state, interviewing people who lost loved ones, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances to suicide. Nearly 2,000 Kentuckians participated in a random telephone survey about their experiences. What we now know about being subjected to suicide — from mere exposure to being significantly impacted by suicide — should change how researchers, clinicians and policy makers think about what suicide does to those impacted.

While published results are forthcoming, what we have learned and can share is that suicide — even mere exposure to the suicide of a neighbor, work colleague, or school mate — can have damaging effects.

For those who feel especially close to an individual who dies by suicide, such as a family member, partner, client or other loved one, the effect can be devastating. This can result in poor health outcomes, such as depression and anxiety.

Perception of closeness seems to be an especially important factor in determining how impacted an individual may be when a suicide occurs.

This probably extends to celebrity deaths and brings us back to our shared feelings about the suicide of Williams. How many of us were raised on Mork and Mindy or Mrs. Doubtfire or had our adolescent anthem, "O Captain! My Captain!" screamed through Dead Poet's Society, wanted a therapist like the good Dr. Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, or wished that the kind and funny genie from Aladdin could help fulfill our dreams?

The public reaction to Williams' suicide — the grief and shock — has been writ large on a canvas for everyone to see. We are witnessing public displays of anguish and range of emotions — from intense feelings of loss to anger — for someone we "felt" we knew, who nurtured us through his comedy, and moved and touched us deeply in his dramatic roles.

This is what we acknowledge as normal reactions to this kind of loss. What we are less clear about is the long-term impact of suicide exposure. What impact will Williams' death have on Americans who are particularly vulnerable to messages about how to cope with life's problems?

What about those individuals who were Williams' devotees, feeling an unusual, and maybe more existential closeness to someone they felt they knew?

Researchers have yet to fully unearth the long-term impact of suicide. Some limited research in this area indicates sleeper effects or modeling effects of suicide and acknowledge the troubling impact it can have on the behaviors of vulnerable individuals.

We urge you to use this opportunity to learn about suicide and its aftermath. Talk to your friends and neighbors. You'll be surprised that so many of them know someone close to them who has died by suicide and have suffered in silence.

Let's use this tragedy to change our conversations and save lives.