‘Copycat’ tendencies are possible, say experts

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 01 Jul 2018

CELEBRITY suicides can have a ripple effect on the general public. And sometimes, it can lead to “copycat suicides”.

This would be seen among those who have a pre-existing mental illnesses like severe depression.

And particularly, those who idolise the celebrities concerned, says Malaysian Mental Health Association president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj.

“At one glance, it does seem rather odd that people who appear happy, have fame and money may not be contented within.

“However, at the end of the day, celebrities and public figures are also human beings.

“They are just as susceptible to depression like anyone else,” he says.

Nevertheless, he points out that being in the limelight and living up to expectations of the public and fans can make depression more difficult to handle among celebrities and public figures.

“Malaysia, too, has its fair share of public figures who battle depression every day,” Dr Mohanraj says, citing singer Haqiem Rusli who recently announced he was taking a break from his career as he was struggling with depression.

“It is commendable that Haqiem took the bold step to publicly announce that he is battling depression.

“Hopefully it marks a new era in our country with regards to perceptions about mental illness and acceptance of depression as something that is not only real and but pervasive as well,” he adds.

Calling the recent celebrity deaths “sad and devastating”, consultant psychiatrist Dr Ting Joe Hang warns that “copycat suicides” may occur if steps are not taken.

“Fans with similar mental health conditions or people with the same sufferings tend to be most vulnerable,” he says.

Dr Ting recalls that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain was once quoted saying that when he was growing up, he “did not want for love or attention”.

“But like everyone else, celebrities only know their true state of well-being when they are on their own, away from the madding crowd.

“That’s when personal ‘demons’, insecurities, self-doubt, and the inner self-loathing voices start to rise above the noise again,” he says.

For some public figures, such empty feelings can be more pronounced, especially for those who have mental health issues.

“One minute you are surrounded by an adoring crowd and the next, you are left alone to battle your personal issues.

“It can hit the person quite hard,” Dr Ting adds.

And research has shown that there are increased suicidal risks after publicity on suicides, notes HELP University senior lecturer and clinical psychologist Evone Phoo.

“It was found that suicides by celebrities could potentially spur suicide imitation.

“For example, in the following months after Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962, suicide rates in the USA spiked by 12%,” she illustrates.

In the case of comedian Robin Williams in 2014, the rates saw an increase of almost 10%.

“This happens especially when the suicide has been dramatically, graphically, and repeatedly reported and romanticised by media,” Phoo adds.

She believes many out there are unaware that they are suffering from mental health issues.

“At the same time, there are also many people who might self-diagnose by visiting mental health-related websites or going through an online checklist.

“There is really no sure-fire way to tell if someone has a mental health issue. It’s best to consult mental health professionals if you feel that you are struggling to cope with life,” she says.

But you don’t even need to have a mental illness to get an expert opinion.

“You can see a mental health professional if you feel, at any point in life, that you would like some different perspectives in dealing with life’s issues; some help in coping with changes in life; or to have a listening ear while you’re going through hard times,” Phoo adds.

While younger generations are now more open to talk about their issues, one of the obstacles to assessing mental health services in Malaysia is its availability and cost.

“Health insurance does not cover the cost of psychiatric services.

“Hence, the cost for seeking private mental health services may pose a burden for some, while those who opt for public healthcare may face the issue of overcrowding and a long waiting list.

“This is partly due to the shortage of mental health professionals in Malaysia, especially in the government sector,” she says.

But as shocking as it is, suicide is preventable, Dr Ting says.

This is because 90% of those who have attempted or committed suicide have a background history of mental illness, which can be treated with the right intervention.

“The picture may sound bleak, with the increasing prevalance of mental illnesses and so on.

“However, awareness is improving. Each year, we are producing more healthcare workers.

“It’s still a long and winding journey. But every journey begins with a single step,” he remarks.

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