Editor’s note: This post deals with suicide. Some readers may find the article triggering.
The massive outpouring of grief and sadness for Charlotte Dawson is making me increasingly uncomfortable.
Ever since the news broke on Saturday morning that the 47-year-old celebrity had died by suicide, media and social media have been saturated with tributes from those who knew her and those who didn’t.
The shock and sorrow are very probably genuine but the celebrity statements and tweets, the eulogising, the hashtags…..I get that sharing thoughts and memories is a natural way for some people to process a tragedy.
But suicide is not the same as other kinds of tragedy and to treat it the same way is incredibly dangerous.
Unlike sudden deaths caused by accidents and crimes, suicide is well known to be contagious. The phenomenon of copycat suicides is called Suicide Contagion or The Werther Effect and it’s a well documented result of suicide either within a school, a community or by a celebrity.
For this reason, there have always been strict guidelines around media reporting of suicide, particularly around any descriptions of the method used. Mostly, these guidelines are respected when it comes to not reporting specifics but not in the case of celebrities, where no salacious detail is spared from a public ravenous for information and a media desperate to extend and expand its coverage of a ‘hot’ story.
So it was when Michael Hutchence died by suicide back in 1997.
Just a week ago, we saw the final installment in the INXS telemovie, which detailed the lead up to Hutchence’s suicide and was accompanied by blanket media coverage that rehashed coroner’s reports, police reports and highly specific details of how Hutchence killed himself.
Nobody will ever know if this impacted on Charlotte Dawson’s decision to kill herself just six days later, reportedly in similar circumstances. This may well have been a coincidence. Or not.
We know that she watched the INXS program because she tweeted about it afterwards – her close friend was listed in the credits.
Regardless, what disturbs me is this. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is inevitably a huge news story in the way it never is when it’s a regular person. There is a degree of genuine sadness but there’s also a large element of rubber-necking masquerading as concern.
The media run blanket coverage, chasing down every possible angle, asking everyone with even the most tenuous link to the celebrity for their thoughts.
Magazines run glossy commemorative issues. Websites like Mamamia publish thoughtful think pieces about the causes and what we can possibly learn.