Suicides rose 10 percent after Robin Williams died

Suicides went up 10 percent across the U.S. in the four months after actor and comedian Robin Williams died in 2014, researchers reported Wednesday.

The wall-to-wall media coverage of Williams' death almost certainly contributed to the rise, the team at Columbia University found.

It's a high-profile example of how "copycat" deaths can follow headline-making suicides, the researchers said. But it's just as easy for media coverage to help lower suicide rates, outside experts said.

"We observed a 9.9 percent increase in the number of suicides in the U.S. from August to December 2014," epidemiologist David Fink and colleagues wrote in their report, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

34 PHOTOS
Robin Williams, in memoriam
See Gallery
Robin Williams, in memoriam
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 18: Zak Williams and Robin Williams attend the Timo Pre Fall 2009 Launch with Interview Magazine at Phillips De Pury on November 18, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Timo Wallets LLC)
Robin Williams with son Zak & wife Marsha during 'Death To Smoochy' Premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 26: Zak Williams, son of Robin Williams, throws out the ceremonial first pitch as Zelda and Cody Williams look on before Game Five of the 2014 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals at AT&T Park on October 26, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Robin Williams, son Zak & wife Marsha during 'Death To Smoochy' Premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Robin Williams with son Zak & wife Marsha during 'One Hour Photo' Premiere at Academy Theatre in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
Portrait of actor Robin Williams, Marin County, California, 1999. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 12: A makeshift memorial for Robin Williams seen in front of Carolines on Broadway comedy club on August 12, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
Robin Williams in the kitchen in a scene from the film 'Mrs. Doubtfire', 1993. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
You're a grown man now and I'm so proud of you. A little bit of you will always be my "Mr Pym". Happy Birthday, @zakpym!
Happy Birthday to me! A visit from one of my favorite leading ladies, Crystal.
Robin Williams visits a sick child in a scene from the film 'Patch Adams', 1998. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
#tbt and Happy Birthday to Ms. Zelda Rae Williams! Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl. Happy Birthday @zeldawilliams Love you!
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - Emmy Award-nominated 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' airs every weeknight (11:35 p.m. - 12:41 a.m., ET), packed with hilarious comedy bits and features a diverse lineup of guests including celebrities, athletes, musicians, comedians and humorous human interest subjects. The guests for TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12 included actor Robin Williams ('The Crazy Ones'), Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons ('Modern Family') and musical guest The Killers - also featuring Jimmy Kimmel Lives' 'Modern Family Feud: Kids Edition.' (Photo by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) ROBIN WILLIAMS, JIMMY KIMMEL
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 5: 'Breakfast Burrito Club' -- Left to Right: Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Zach (James Wolk), Simon (Robin Williams) and Andrew (Hamish Linklater) delve into each other'™s personal lives while brainstorming ideas for an ad campaign, on THE CRAZY ONES, Thurs. Oct. 17 (9:01 -“ 9:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 5: 'Breakfast Burrito Club' -- Simon (Robin Williams) brainstorms ideas for an ad campaign for the breakfast burrito, on THE CRAZY ONES, Thurs. Oct. 17 (9:01 9:31 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1515 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Robin Williams, host Jay Leno during an interview on December 22, 1998 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Robin Williams, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams at the Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, : Academy Award-winning actor Robin Williams wears a clown nose as he places his hands in cement during his hand and footprint ceremony outside Mann's Chinese Theatre 22 December in Hollywood, California. Williams is currently starring in the critically acclaimed film 'Patch Adams' about a doctor who uses humor to help heal his patients. AFP PHOTO/Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
Arnold Schwarzenegger & Robin Williams during The 13th Annual Moving Picture Ball American Cinematheque Award Honoring Arnold Schwarzenegger at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, UNITED STATES: Academy Award winning actor Robin Williams signs autographs for fans as he arrives for the premiere of his new film, 'What Dreams May Come' 28 September in Beverly Hills, CA. The film, a romantic-fantasy based on the Richard Matheson novel, tells of one man's journey to other worlds to find the woman he loves. AFP PHOTO Vince BUCCI (Photo credit should read Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
Off to the Emmys with my beautiful wife, Susan.
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Oscar winners Robin Williams (L), Best Supporting Actor and Jack Nicholson (R), Best Actor pose for photographers 23 March at the 70th Annual Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Williams won for his roll in 'Good Will Hunting' and Nicholson for 'As Good As It Gets.' (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Robin Williams is covered in paint in a scene from the film 'What Dreams May Come', 1998. (Photo by Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Getty Images)
324574 35: Robin Williams stands with Matt Damon at the fourth annual Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremonies March 18, 1998 in Los Angeles, CA. Various actors and entertainers attended the ceremonies to honor the accomplishments of their fellow performers. (Photo by Russell Einhorn/Liaison)
FRIENDS -- 'The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion' Episode 24 -- Pictured: (l-r) Billy Crystal as Tim, Robin Williams as Thomas, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Nathan Lane and Robin Williams standing in pajamas on the porch in a scene from the film 'The Birdcage', 1996. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)
Bonnie Hunt, Bradley Pierce, Kirsten Dunst and Robin Williams hold each other in a scene from the film 'Jumanji', 1995. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 23: U.S. actor Robin Williams holds his Golden Globe after winning for best actor in a comedy for his role in 'Mrs. Doubtfire' 22 January 1994. The movie also won a Golden Globe for best comedy film. (Photo credit should read DAVID CRANE/AFP/Getty Images)
Robin Williams and Tim Robbins in a scene from the film 'Cadillac Man', 1990. (Photo by Orion Pictures/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 16: Robin Williams (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Getting ready for The Tonight Show with The Man, @jayleno. Jay got me my first paying stand-up job.
UNITED STATES - MARCH 16: Robin Williams (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Robin Williams and Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Heather Wines/CBS via Getty Images)
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"There was an excess of approximately 1,841 suicides in the United States in the four months after the death of Robin Williams compared to what would be expected for that time period based on forecasted models."

Related: Is social media contributing to rise in teen suicides?

In years past, during the same season, about 16,800 suicides would have been usual. But there were 18,960 suicides in the last third of 2014.

"Although we cannot determine with certainty that these deaths are attributable to the death of Robin Williams, we found both a rapid increase in suicides in August 2014, and specifically suffocation suicides, that paralleled the time and method of Williams' death."

It has been known for decades that media reports about suicides, especially celebrity suicides, lead to an increase of suicide deaths. It's often the same with violent attacks, such as school shootings.

The effect is so strong that the World Health Organization has issued guidelines for reporting on suicide, as have various groups with expertise in countering suicide.

Related: Suicides among teen girls hit 40-year high

12 PHOTOS
Well-known figures who committed suicide
See Gallery
Well-known figures who committed suicide

Former NFL player Junior Seau

(Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Comedian and actor Robin Williams 

(Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images)

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain 

(Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Linkin Park band member Chester Bennington 

(Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Musician Chris Cornell

(Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

'Bachelor' contestant Gia Allemand 

(Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

British designer Alexander McQueen 

(Matt Dunham / Reuters)

Don Cornelius, creator and executive producer of the television dance show "Soul Train"

(Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Professional wrestler Chris Benoit 

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Actor Mark Salling 

(Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic)

Former New England Patriots football player Aaron Hernandez

(REUTERS/Steven Senne/Pool)

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"It is a challenge in today's media climate to follow these guidelines," Fink said.

It's especially harmful to publicize the way in which someone dies, and attention-grabbing headlines also tend to worsen the problem, experts agree.

"Don't quote the suicide note or describe the method used," the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline advises in its guidelines for media.

"Avoid splashy headlines, such as 'Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide.' Instead, inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide, e.g. 'Kurt Cobain Dead at 27'," it adds.

But media reports of suicides do offer an opportunity to help people at risk of suicide, Fink said.

"When you highlight an issue such as this, it creates an opportunity to, hopefully, shift the conversation," he said.

Giving phone numbers and websites where help is available is an important first step, said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

"Because media or public figures are influencers, what we have also learned is that in general stories that talk about positive coping during suicide moments, can help reduce the suicide rate," Draper said.

"When a public figure talks about a very dark period in their life, talks about suicide, about finding a way out of this and through it and how they are happy to be alive, those stories help."

In fact, the media reports about Williams' death led to a 105 percent increase in the number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), Draper said.

"The media saturated the airwaves with stories not just about the suicide but also a number to call," he said. "The rates might have been even higher had there not been this number out there."

And just pointing out that help is available is in itself comforting to people at risk of suicide, Draper said.

"We know that when people are aware that there is help, that also acts as a public health buffer in preventing suicides," he said. "Just knowing help is available just acts as a psychological safety net."

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