Lady Gaga’s apology “if I spoke too soon” about the tragic passing of Rick Genest – a Canadian artist, actor, and fashion model, also known as Zombie Boy – highlights how difficult it can be to talk about sudden and unexpected deaths.
The superstar who has 76m Twitter followers, retracted tweets that referred to Genest’s death as suicide and apologised after Genest’s manager reported that his family believe the death was an accident. She went on to write: “I in no way meant to draw an unjust conclusion.”
Some of the confusion around sudden deaths can happen because a formal declaration of the cause of death can involve an excruciating wait. It may take months for police, coroners, physicians and pathologists to gather information about circumstances leading up to the death and to perform vital blood tests that help determine the cause. But despite this reality, our experience working with bereaved families has shown that fictional crime programmes, such as CSI, can give people unrealistic expectations about how quickly the cause of death can be determined.
Speaking too soon
The sometimes lengthy coroner’s process means that family and friends often try to create their own narrative around what has happened. In the case of Genest, this appears to have initially resulted in two different interpretations of his death. This shows how the very challenging and shocking nature of a death can leave those affected confused about how to talk about it.
Yet, this distinction in the cause of death can have a profound impact on the grief process and carries implications about the approach to providing support. Any sudden, unexpected death is tragic and traumatic, but there is an additional layer of stigma and taboo with a suicide. And where a suicide is confirmed, specific help and support for people affected is important.
Lady Gaga’s deleted tweets were clearly well intentioned. They demonstrated her close bond with Genest and were further evidence of her desire to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and suicide. But, of course, the tweet itself led to follow up reports by other media, which further speculated on the cause of death.
Reducing suicide contagion
One reason why it’s important to address the publicity generated by Lady Gaga’s tweets is the phenomenon of suicide contagion. Contagion is when exposure to suicide influences others to take their lives.
Evidence shows that high profile deaths by suicide result in an increase in suicide rates in the general public. In the four months after the death of the actor and comedian Robin Williams, there was a 10% rise in suicide deaths in the US.
There are established evidence based methods to reduce risk and promote healing after a suicide death, referred to as postvention. Postvention is considered a key element of suicide prevention that helps to minimise the impact of suicide contagion.
Media guidelines exist to help manage this risk. Although we do not know exactly why contagion occurs, there is clear evidence that these guidelines were not always followed in the case of Robin Williams, for example.
Cases such as Genest’s highlight the complicated nature of communication following sudden unexpected deaths, and of protecting the public from suicide contagion – via all forms of media attention. But the positive news is that responsible media coverage that follows the guidelines and encourages positive coping is likely to have protective effects.
Even those who are well meaning in posting about suspected suicides can cause distress to the family, as well as increase wider media speculation. Further discussion about the best way to support and maintain effective media guidelines will help manage this difficult phase immediately after a death – in particular, after a high-profile death with wide community and societal impact.