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After CNN pays tribute to late chef Anthony Bourdain, psychologists warn that more must be done to prevent suicide
Tomás Del Coro / CCL
In a special episode of Part Unknown on Sunday, CNN became the latest network to pay tribute to world-renowned chef, author, and television host Anthony Bourdain, whose June suicide shocked the world.
But while public mourning through candle-light vigils and television tributes may help those who are grieving, two psychologists are warning that these measures won’t necessarily prevent suicide. According to James Coyne, “an emeritus professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania,” and Joan Cook, “a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University,” suicide is a serious public health issue that requires more focused responses than just simply raising public awareness.
“Fervently-appealing strategies, like marches, vigils and memorials, may be important for other reasons, like an expression of collective grief and support,” Coyne and Cook wrote for The Hill, “but are unlikely to result in measurably fewer deaths by suicide.”
Psychologists: Suicide prevention techniques not effective
It’s a pattern that seems to repeat again and again: whenever a celebrity commits suicide, grieving fans come together with candle-lit vigils and pour energy into suicide awareness campaigns. But while these gestures may be well-meaning, Coyne and Cook say they won’t necessarily do anything to curb suicides.
“Death by suicide is a serious public health issue. It’s tragic and heartbreaking,” Coyne and Cook admitted in their op-ed. “Suicide is a particularly difficult issue for those who have survived attempting suicide and are frightened of what they will do if they ever confront such a situation again; loved ones of those who have attempted suicide and those who have died by suicide; and lots of people whose worldview has been shaken by the death by suicide of a celebrity whom they greatly admired and wished they could be like.”
But because they are in the spotlight, celebrity suicides may create a misleading picture of the issue. Suicide is “still relatively infrequent,” according to the psychologists, and “most importantly, predicting the time and place of the next suicide is almost impossible from known risk factors.”
“I have never seen any evidence for this or any similar interventions that they lessen suicide rates. Nor have I seen any evidence that they may not increase suicide rates,” Dr. Stan Kutcher, a mental health policy expert, told Coyne and Cook. “We just don’t know.”
What can be done
Celebrity suicides may leave the impression that anyone and everyone is at an equal risk of suicide. After all, part of what made Bourdain’s death so shocking was that he led a glamorous lifestyle that most people can only dream of living.
If someone like Bourdain found the fantastically stimulating life of a globe-trotting celebrity chef unsatisfying, then what about the millions of people with ordinary lives and jobs? However, when everyone is treated as a potential suicide, prevention efforts suffer, the psychologists argued.
Suicide awareness campaigns tend to cast too wide a net, they noted, while screening and prevention efforts divert mental health resources away from the highest risk individuals by treating everyone as a potential suicide victim. According to Coyne and Cook, focusing suicide prevention efforts on the highest risk individuals could be a more strategic way to make an impact on reducing the suicide rate.
“We understand how disturbing death by suicide can be for the survivors: the family members and friends and even the loss to the greater society,” the psychologists wrote. “But if we want to do something clinically effective as well as capitalize on financial and human resources, we need to be more strategic. Our best investments are not being made.”
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