Exposure to Suicide Movies and Suicide Attempts: A Research Note

By Stack, Steven; Kral, Michael et al. | Sociological Focus, January-March 2014 | Go to article overview

Exposure to Suicide Movies and Suicide Attempts: A Research Note


Stack, Steven, Kral, Michael, Borowski, Teresa, Sociological Focus


Research on the impact of exposure to suicide movies on suicidality has been marked by three limitations. It is largely based on (1) aggregate data subject to the ecological fallacy, (2) exposure to a single movie, and (3) relative lack of controls for psychological states and social factors linked to suicide. The present study addresses these gaps. It follows a modified Beach method and assesses the impact of cumulative, voluntary exposure to suicide movies on suicide attempts. The subjects are 260 undergraduates at a midwestem university. The dependent variable is a previous suicide attempt. Cumulative exposure to suicide movies is based on self-reports. Controls include religiosity, depression, burdensomeness, and demographics. A multivariate logistic regression analysis determined that, controlling for other predictors, for each additional movie exposure the risk of attempted suicide increased by 47.6 percent. This is the first investigation to demonstrate a link between cumulative, voluntary exposure to suicide movies on suicidality.

Suicide ranks among the ten leading causes of death. In 2010 suicide accounted for 37,793 deaths compared to 35,080 motor vehicle deaths in the United States (Murphy, Xu, and Kochanek 2012). Persons are twice as apt to die through suicide as to be killed in a homicide; the corresponding number of deaths in 2009 was 36,909 and 16,799 (Kochanek et al. 2011). While the impact of many social risk and protective factors on suicide has been the subject of much research (Lester 2000; Stack 2000; Wasserman and Wasserman 2009), the impact of portrayals of suicide in the cinema has been neglected (Stack 2009).

Watching films (including attendance at the theater, DVD rentals, and DVD downloads online) is now the leading leisure time activity of Americans (e.g., Bulman 2005; Vera and Gordon 2003). The impact of exposure to cinematic portrayals of behavior on the audience has been interpreted from the standpoint of social learning theory (Appel 2008; Charlesworth and Glantz 2005; Dalton et al. 2003; Jamieson 2001; Morgenstern et al. 2011; Pirkis et al. 2006; Sargent et al. 2005). For example, exposure to smoking behavior in film is often closely linked to smoking behavior of the audience (Sargent et al. 2005; for a review see Charlesworth and Glantz 2005). A review of the literature reported that between one third and one half of smoking initiation is independently attributed to exposure to smoking in the movies (de Leeuw et al. 2011). In addition to smoking, the degree of exposure to drinking in feature films was found to have an impact on adolescent drinking behavior independent of controls (Sargent et al. 2006). Turning to mental illness, a review of 26 investigations determined that cinematic portrayals of mental illness in feature films affect the attitudes towards mental illness in their audience (Pirkis et al. 2006). Finally, at the ecological level, Jamieson (2001) determined that as the proportion of top box office movies containing a suicide increased over half a century, youth suicide rose.

The previous work on the effect of movies containing portrayals of suicide on suicidality has been marked by several limitations. First, much of the research has been based on aggregated data wherein the suicide rate of a general population (city, state, and nation) is assessed before and after the broadcast of a single suicide movie or series of up to four suicide movies (e.g., Gould and Shaffer 1986; Phillips and Paight 1987; Schmidtke and Hafner 1988; Stack 1990). It is not generally known to what extent those suiciding in an experimental period had viewed the movie under study. A review of 26 of these studies containing 183 findings on media impacts on completed suicides found a substantial proportion of null findings (Stack 2009).

Second, research has not explored the effect of cumulative exposure to suicide movies. Instead, most of the work explores the suicide rate of a population before and after an exposure to a single movie (e. …

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