Suicide in the Media – Closing the Public Eye

Alert: This is a Thinking Spaces opinion piece not an official piece of academic research – please engage and remember: these are often musings, not findings.

At the beginning of the #mentalhealthawareness week in the UK, there have been several news reports that popular daytime tabloid talk show, The Jeremy Kyle Show, has been indefinitely suspended following the death of a recent guest.  At the time of writing, there is no confirmation that this tragedy is a result of suicide; however, this would not be the first time that Kyle’s trademark name and shame brand of entertainment has had fatalities.

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In 2009 the Telegraph reported that a former guest of the show Rodger Irons took his own life reportedly after enduring years of homophobic taunts and abuse.  Rodger appeared on the show in 2006 with his partner Matthew to discuss issues with their marriage, a decision that Matthew claimed significantly helped them.  However, three years later, Rodger took his own life.  In this case, it is difficult to establish a causal link between the show and the tragedy, nor is that the point of this article.  However, producers of the show were quick to establish in a statement that ‘his death was not linked to the show and came well after his appearance’.  Also, in an instance of terribly poor timing, Rodger’s appearance was repeated the following week after his death.

Suicide Infographic

Crossing the pond, in 2018 the infamous Jerry Springer Show 23-year-old Blake Alvey took his own life just days after the airing of his appearance with his unfaithful ‘fiancé’.  In the aftermath of his death, his family sued the show claiming that show had a ‘reckless disregard for the lives and safety of others’.  The official statement read:

The Jerry Springer Show was designed to humiliate and exploit people like Blake, while the defendants disregard the devastating consequences that their conduct can have on people’s lives,” the lawsuit read. “We will fight to hold them accountable.”

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Beyond chat shows, exposure to the public can have significant detrimental impacts on an individual’s mental health.  Big Brother, The Only Way Is Essex, and particularly Love Island have all been associated with lasting mental health issues for their contestants.  Series two contestant Sophie Gradon and Series three star Mike Thalassitis both took their own lives.  Controversy surrounds Gradon’s death as her family argues it was not suicide; however, separate inquests have determined she took her own life.  Gradon reportedly suffered intense cyberbullying and trolling as thousands of negative comments were directed at her across social media.

Thalassitis’ death shocked many as love for the star poured out of social media and a go fund me page for his family.  His motivations are again unclear. However, close friends and family pointed to the pressures of his fame and confusion about career direction.

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Yet, it is not just those on television who can suffer the damaging mental health consequences of 21st connectivity.  In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, (the always incredible) John Oliver discussed how public shaming and online witch hunts can damage and destroy lives.  Focusing on the need for people to be publicly held to account for behaviour, he argued: “Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to pile onto a public shaming, in fact, it’s now one of America’s favourite pastimes.”  The episode is a fantastic in-depth look at the art of public shaming and the ease by which it is to contribute to it.  Oliver himself apologies for his own past instances where he had mocked Monica Lewinski and her relationship with former US President Clinton.

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CC: Youtube –

Lewinski herself later tweeted extensively on how her life was destroyed by the media and being vilified and mocked in the public eye.

Monica Lewinsky
Tweet by Monic Lewinsky – CC: Twitter

The point to this article is mainly the far-reaching damage caused by perceptions created in the media or online.  21st-century culture actively seeks out these public melodramas.  Magazines, Social Media, TV shows, Radio Programmes, even online dramas, provide windows into other people’s pain or life complications for enjoyment.  Psychologically speaking, we could seek this out for reasons such as reassurance that other people have it worse, for a morbid fascination for suffering, for enjoyment or even advice on how to survive situations, or simply to remove ourselves from our own daily battles.  The Netflix show 13 Reason’s Why fits into this category, but analysis of this will be written up in a different article later.

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Some public figures actively seek out negative attention; Kate Hopkins, Nigel Farage, and Piers Morgan, immediately spring to mind, and it can be easy to feed into this and contribute.  Trolling can even be cathartic and ‘safe’ as it can be anonymous and offers a way to vent frustration or fun for a joke against a topical figure.  If your views oppose these figures or particular political views then making comments and criticisms online can be a way of challenging viewpoints.   However, it can also be perilous and opens up avenues for normalisation of attacking those you do not agree with online.  Debate is one thing, and humour is often a grey area, but it can be a short stretch to being a position where you can endanger someone’s life.

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A google search on the 13th of May 2019 brings up thousands of search hits related to social media, shaming, trolling, and suicide.   This is a significant issue.  The World Health Organisation claims that one person takes their own life every 40 seconds, and for each successful attempt it is hypothesised that 20 more attempts are made unsuccessfully.  Therefore 21 people around the world every 41 seconds attempt suicide. Suicide is the second biggest killer of 15-29-year-olds globally, incidentally roughly the same age range showing the highest demographic of internet use.   Public shaming and trolling may not be the cause of all these deaths, but there are certainly recognisable causal factors which demand attention to help save lives in the future.

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