Suicide Contagion in Response to Widely Publicized Celebrity Deaths: The Roles of Depressed Affect, Death-Thought Accessibility, and Attitudes

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Abstract

Suicide contagion often occurs when a suicide death that is widely publicized (typically by the media) results in increases in suicide rates. However, the underlying cognitive and emotional mechanisms behind how and when suicide contagion occurs have been, up to this point, hazily understood. The present study: (a) tested whether individuals with depressed affect respond differently to celebrity suicides widely publicized by the media compared with those who do not have depressed affect, (b) measured 2 potential cognitive mechanisms that may be involved in suicide contagion, death-thought accessibility and attitudes about the acceptability and normality of suicide, and (c) compared responses to widely publicized suicide versus accidental death and natural death. The findings highlight a key moderator—depressive affect—that predicts the likelihood of being susceptible to suicide contagion effects following media coverage of a suicide death, clarify that its boundary conditions include cases of accidental death, and elucidate 2 cognitive mechanisms, death-thought accessibility and attitudes toward suicide acceptability and normality.

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