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Social networks and media coverage are blamed for series of teenage suicides in Russia

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e3110 (Published 01 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3110
  1. Harriet Vickers
  1. 1BMJ

Social media sites where teenagers discuss how to kill themselves and irresponsible reporting of deaths in the media have been blamed by Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, for the country’s high rate of teenage suicides, after a series of well publicised deaths. He has called for society to treat the issue “extremely gently.”

A United Nations Children’s Fund report published at the end of last year said that Russia has the third highest rate of youth suicide in the world, at 22 per 100 000 15 to 19 year olds in 2009, just behind other former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Belarus. In 2009 just over 1700 adolescents aged 15 to 19 killed themselves.

The Russian Federal State Statistics Service claims that the number of suicides committed by people aged under 14 years fell to 240 in 2010, less than half the 500 recorded in 2000, yet since the start of this year the media have been closely following teenage deaths across the country.

Alexander Nemtsov, department head at the Moscow Research Institute of Psychiatry, said, “Adolescent suicide this year is no different from previous years. It is simply that the media have become more interested in reporting them.”

The attention was sparked in February when two 14 year old girls jumped hand in hand from a roof to their deaths, and a week later a 14 year old boy and 15 year old girl killed themselves. According to investigators, one had followed instructions posted by members of a group named “Tomorrow will never come—I will die today” on Russia’s leading social media site, Vkontakte. Here 2000 subscribers shared their thoughts on suicide methods.

Then another cluster of six suicides over a 24 hour period beginning 9 April was heavily reported. A 16 year old jumped from an unfinished hospital, and a further five teenagers hanged themselves.

Political pressure forced Vkontakte to start shutting down groups discussing suicide, and experts criticised media coverage of the events, saying that it could have induced copycat acts. Contrary to the World Health Organization’s guidelines on how suicides should be reported, graphic images such as vertiginous rooftop views and bodies covered by bloodied sheets were used in television broadcasts, and written articles gave details of methods, photographs of locations, and lurid, lengthy descriptions of the events. These aspects have now largely disappeared from the coverage.

David Gunnell, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said that although suicides arise from a complex set of factors, media reporting could influence vulnerable teenagers, and he added that copycat suicides are more likely to be carried out by people of the same sex and similar age. “There’s a good consensus that being exposed to poor media reporting can have a fairly small but identifiable influence,” he said.

Questioned about the issue after a meeting on school education, Medvedev blamed the deaths on the “new communication space.” However, the presidential ombudsman for children, Pavel Astakhov, has said that the Ministry of Health is responsible because of poor preventive measures. He is lobbying the health and education ministries to develop suicide prevention programmes for teenagers.

“The Ministry of Education and Science is carrying out an investigation into the issue, aiming to draw parents’ and teachers’ attention towards their children and students, respectively, and to let schools, which have reduced the number of child psychologists, set up centres to help vulnerable young people,” Astakhov said.

“It is true that psychological support is not readily available for the people who need it,” said Vasiliy Vlassov, professor of medicine at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. “In my understanding of the teenage suicides the problems are that these people don’t understand they need psychological support and they don’t look for it,” he added.

However, Vlassov and other experts have said that social problems in Russia—such as lack of out of school activities, long separation from parents, and alcoholism—are also important factors in the high rate of adolescent suicides.

Gunnell said that destigmatising mental illness and getting people who are considering suicide to seek professional help were universally a major problem. “Interventions to improve the general mental health and wellbeing of teenagers are a good way to go about tackling suicides and suicidal thoughts—for example, interventions focused on alcohol and drug misuse, as these can be important factors,” he said.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3110

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