How Ellen Loo, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain should inspire those with mental illness to seek help
Paul Yip and Daniel Lung say the conversation around celebrity suicides should focus on the complexity of causes leading to people taking their own lives and the value of reaching out for help
The sudden loss of Canto-pop singer Ellen Loo has shocked the public and her fans. Many were devastated by her death. The last thing we need to see are negative interpretations that lead to a misunderstanding of mental disorders and doubts cast on the effectiveness of seeking help such as “emotional disorders are incurable” and “it is useless to seek medical treatment”.
In fact, Loo had been proactive in facing mental illness and had engaged in many mental health promotion activities. She shared her experience in facing bipolar disorder and the challenges of the recovery process. She encouraged people with mental health problems to seek help. All these reflected her affirmation of the effectiveness of treatments and the importance of reaching out for help.
Just as with the rehabilitation process of other illnesses, the road to recovery from mental illnesses is bumpy, with relapses always a possibility. These include sudden and unprovoked depressive moods and poor thinking ability, among others. These conditions are sometimes more difficult to understand and to empathise with than physical pain, with the ups and downs sometimes leading patients to feel helpless and discouraged.
To support people who experience such episodes, we should try to affirm the positive progress they have made. Moreover, they need additional attention and support so that they feel we are walking with them during the tough times.
Watch: Hong Kong pop singer Ellen Loo dies aged 32
Loo was a gifted artist who was idolised by many young people. Several studies have shown that celebrity suicides can elevate suicidal risk in the community, especially for fans who identify with the deceased.
In 2014, after the comedian Robin Williams’ death, 18,690 suicide deaths were recorded in the US, a nearly 10 per cent increase in the suicide rate. After the suicide of Robert Enke, the goalkeeper of Germany’s national soccer team, in 2009, not only was there a short-term spike in the number of railway suicides, but also a 19 per cent increase in such suicides over the next two years compared to the same period before Enke’s death.
Our centre has studied 13 celebrity suicides in South Korea between 2005 and 2009. A rise in the number of suicides was detected in the week following the incident and possibly up to nine weeks after. Those who identify with the deceased by age and personal experience were the most vulnerable. Recently, the two high-profile cases of suicide of American fashion designer Kate Spade and award-winning chef Anthony Bourdain sparked fears of a rise in copycat suicides.
Therefore, in the aftermath of these tragedies, the media should be careful when reporting on suicide. As Canadian psychiatrist Dr Mark Sinyor suggested, the media should treat suicide as a “health story” instead of an “entertainment story”. In this social media era, not only do journalists need to take responsibility for how they frame news, but it is also the duty of the general public to be conscious about how they express their thoughts on suicide. We suggest being careful about sharing this sort of news on social media as well.
Watch: Remembering chef, author and TV host Anthony Bourdain
All of us can do something to minimise the contagious effect of suicide. We need to try to minimise the impact on the vulnerable, including those marginalised in society, people with emotional problems and mental disorders. The repetitive news coverage and sharing of suicide incidents “normalises” this behaviour. Worse, if we fail to appreciate the complexity of the causes of suicide, and put the blame on one single cause, it will be easier for those vulnerable to find a “legitimate” excuse.
In 2016, the sudden increase in suicide among schoolchildren in Hong Kong provided painful but valuable lessons. Excessive and sensational reporting on the suicides of a few university and school students triggered a copycat effect. Within a four-month period, the number of student suicides was similar to the whole of 2015.
Fortunately, a concerted effort from different quarters, including an improvement in the media’s reporting style, broke the cycle at the time. It is of vital importance that the media provides accurate information to the community. This calls for full consideration of the many factors that could cause suicide, including mental illness, relationship and adjustment problems, prior suicide attempts, a history of child abuse and mistreatment, alcohol and substance abuse, and a lack of social support.
Suicide is indeed a serious public health problem. It devastates families and causes much social and economic loss. Ellen Loo will be missed for her talent and her admirable bravery in responding to her mental illness. In order to truly remember her, we hope her fans will continue to be inspired by her dedication at work and her willingness to seek help. Living well is often the best way to remember the deceased. Ellen said in 2017: “I feel I've made my peace with the world. Over the last two years I've forgiven the world.” Let’s remember we don’t need to walk alone when facing troubles.
Paul Yip is the director, and Daniel Lung a project officer, of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong
If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page