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Celebrity Suicide and the Media


The music world was reeling after the shocking death of Linkin Park front man, Chester Bennington in late July. Bennington was found unresponsive at his Los Angeles home where the coroners later ruled his death a suicide. His passing occurred on the birthday of his late friend, Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Sound Garden, who also died by suicide this past May (3). Both musicians’ deaths were heavily covered by media outlets around the world, many of which ignored the best practices for responsible suicide reporting. While the media’s role is to inform the public on current events around the world, they tend to underestimate how the words they choose can affect their readers, particularly in the way they report on a suicide.

Following the death of these two high-profile artists, the Omaha area has seen a surge in suicides and my guess is that we are not the only community who has seen this rise. More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage on high-profile suicides can increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and actions among vulnerable people (1). The way media reports can cause suicide contagion or “copycat suicides.” In an attempt to reduce the contagion effect, experts have developed guidelines in which the media should follow. Some of these best practices include avoiding mention of the method of death, never sensationalizing the headline, and not glamorizing the individual’s death with extensive or repeated coverage. Experts also stress the importance of including an underlying message of hope, information about mental health – specifically depression, local and national resources, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number 1(800)273-8255 (TALK).

In August 1962, there was extensive coverage of the death and “probable suicide” of Marilyn Monroe. News outlets posted dramatic headlines detailing the way she died, how she was found, and even published photos of the icon being removed from the hotel in which she died. In the months following her death, the U.S. saw a 12% increase in suicide. In April of 1994, Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain killed himself and due to his level of stardom and the fact that much of his fan base consisted of people who are already at an increased risk of suicide, mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts feared the worst. However, during this same time experts released a list of best practices for the media to follow when reporting on suicide. For the first time, we saw these guidelines applied and what was seen was this; in Seattle, the place Cobain lived and died, the rates actually decreased. Not only did the local suicide rates decrease, but the number of people who called into the city’s suicide prevention helpline dramatically increased. Nationally, our rates went up a bit; however, experts prepared to see a much higher rise due to the attention his death received on a national level.  Much of the national and worldwide outlets did not apply these responsible reporting guidelines.

Much of this local decrease was contributed to the way Seattle’s press reported on his death. Rather than focusing on the way he died and trying to dissect the “why” behind it, they focused their messaging around the importance to seek help for mental health conditions. They included local mental health resources and even promoted the number to their local suicide prevention helpline, and for the first time we saw the positive effects from utilizing media best practices.

Because of the work I do, I hear about lives being lost by suicide on a regular basis. While each of these lives are irreplaceable, Chester’s death hit me a little harder than some of the other recent high-profile deaths. When Linkin Park released their first album “Hybrid Theory,” I was in junior high and I remember saving up my babysitting money to buy it. I even remember the look of concern on my mom’s face when I tore open the CD’s wrapping and blasted “In the End” on the way home from the store. Looking back at the lyrics of that particular song, I understand why. There were nights in high schools when I would just drive around listening to their songs over and over. Bennington had a powerful way of expressing his emotions through music. I think I connected with his music so much because a small part of me could, on some level, relate to how he was feeling – anxious, insecure, alone, and sometimes numb. These were emotions that I never felt comfortable sharing, so I like so many others kept them hidden.

When I first started dating my husband, we discovered our mutual adoration for the band and on the way home from one of our first dates. We ended up parking in a lot and playing every album from start to finish. After learning the sad news of Bennington’s death, he and I revisited some of our favorite songs. For the first time in a long time, I listened to his words and began to realize that he had been singing about his internal pain and suicidal thoughts for nearly two decades. After countless hours of listening to him through the years, it took his death for me to finally hear this.

In an attempt to make sense of his death, I learned that when Chester was only seven years old he was sexually abused by an older friend. Crippled by fear and shame, he suffered in silence for nearly six years. In addition to the abuse, his parents filed for divorce when he was 11 years old. He even talked about how these years of intense trauma made a detrimental impact to his self-esteem, confidence, and mental health.

“I remember that stuff happening to me at that stage and even thinking about it now makes me want to cry,” said Bennington in a 2011 interview with The Guardian. “My God, no wonder I became a drug addict. No wonder I just went completely insane for a little while.”(7)

His battles with alcohol and substances were no secret and he would often talk about the challenges of sobriety. He opened up about first experimenting with marijuana after his parents’ divorce and he quickly escalated into using cocaine and methamphetamine. Bennington made the decision to become sober in 2006 after his bandmates held an intervention (6).

While we will never fully understand the why behind his or anyone else’s suicide, I think it is important to educate people on how important it is to understand the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. He was at a much higher risk for suicide due to his history of trauma and substance use. He also exhibited suicidal thoughts through his writing and expression. His bandmates even make a mention about these “demons” in an open letter to the lead singer:

“We’re trying to remind ourselves that the demons who took you away from us were always part of the deal.  After all, it was the way you sang about those demons that made everyone fall in love with you in the first place,” said Linkin Park in an open letter to Bennington. “You fearlessly put them on display and in doing so, brought us together and taught us to be more human.  You had the biggest heart, and managed to wear it on your sleeve.” (4)

While Chester is gone, he will not soon be forgotten. His memory will live on through his six children, his close friends, family, and through his music. I came across the lyrics to the title track on the last album he released, and I felt like it may be a small glimpse into how he was seeing himself and how he was feeling in his final months on earth:

Should’ve stayed, were there signs, I ignored? Can I help you, not to hurt, anymore? We saw brilliance, when the world, was asleep There are things that we can have, but can’t keep

If they say Who cares if one more light goes out? In a sky of a million stars It flickers, flickers Who cares when someone’s time runs out? If a moment is all we are We’re quicker, quicker Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do 

The reminders pull the floor from your feet In the kitchen, one more chair than you need oh And you’re angry, and you should be, it’s not fair Just ’cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it, isn’t there

If they say Who cares if one more light goes out? In a sky of a million stars It flickers, flickers Who cares when someone’s time runs out? If a moment is all we are We’re quicker, quicker Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do 

Well I do 

-One More Light, by Linkin Park

 

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-TALK (8255) 24/7 and speak to a trained counselor. Depression and substance abuse are treatable, please know that there is help and there is hope.

Resources:

  1. http://reportingonsuicide.org/wp-content/themes/ros2015/assets/images/Recommendations-eng.pdf
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/14/upshot/the-science-behind-suicide-contagion.html
  3. http://www.msn.com/en-us/music/celebrity/chester-bennington-cause-of-death-rocker-died-of-suicide-by-hanging-coroner-confirms/ar-AAoL2X1?ocid=spartanntp
  4. http://www.msn.com/en-us/music/news/linkin-park-write-heartfelt-tribute-to-chester-bennington/ar-AAoKUbg?OCID=ansmsnnews11
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jul/24/linkin-park-chester-bennington-death-suicide-prevention-website
  6. https://www.earnthenecklace.com/chester-bennington-abuse-linkin-park-drug-abuse/
  7. http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/20/entertainment/chester-bennington-dead/index.html

Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation

Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition and The Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.

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