Suicidal attempts since the suicide of entertainer Dudu Topaz in his prison cell in August have risen by 24 percent, data gathered by Magen David Adom indicates. The information was gathered at the request of the national program for suicide prevention currently under creation by the Health Ministry, to check fears that Topaz's widely publicized example can influence others to act likewise.
Lior Carmel, director of the program, said that celebrity suicides leading to a rise in suicides among the general population have been noted worldwide. "With all due caution and based on the information received, it appears there is a chance that some Israelis also got some ideas following Topaz's suicide and its media coverage."
An inspection of the calls to MDA related to suicide attempts shows that the monthly average from January to July of such calls was about 379. However, from early August to 21 September, MDA received 829 calls reporting suicide attempts - a monthly average of 493, indicating a rise of 24 percent. The heads of the suicide prevention program also met with the president of the Press Council, retired justice Dalia Dorner, to discuss the media coverage of Topaz's death. Dorner told Haaretz that "following the meeting an inspection was conducted, and it transpired that in the press council's code there exists a regulation prohibiting publication of the exact method of suicide, unless this is of public interest."
"I assume the clause was not relevant for the Topaz case, but it was decided we will invite Health Ministry officials to monitor the press for coverage of such matters, and approach us on any apparent violation of the code, which in turn would allow us to discuss it in the council's ethics tribunal," Dorner said.
Carmel, however, was considerably more emphatic in his assessment of the media coverage. "When newspapers and television deliver detailed instructions, this could give people with suicidal tendencies some ideas," he said. "Media coverage should not begin a chain reaction. Also, in the Topaz case not all coverage detailed the specific context of Topaz's very grave mental state - which could have contributed to the glorification of the act. The manner of coverage should be monitored, with factors like the placement of the story, the size of the headlines, the description of the suicides and the glorification of the deceased should all be taken into consideration. These factors can increase suicidal tendencies in already vulnerable populations."
Chief psychologist of the Health Ministry, Dr. Yamima Goldberg, told Haaretz that "we certainly do not ask to prevent coverage of suicides, and we have every respect for press freedom. It's just that the information should be published responsibly."
In 2000, the World Health Organization published guidelines for media coverage of suicides. The WHO called for careful analysis of suicide statistics and avoiding dramatic statements like "a suicide epidemic" or "place with most suicides in the world."
Prof. Yisrael Orbach of the psychology department of Bar-Ilan University said that "research shows that dramatic coverage of a suicide incident, with large front page headlines, large pictures and detailed information about the suicide method, may encourage suicide attempts among people who can identify themselves with the deceased."
The national suicide prevention program is set to pilot in November, in the cities of Rehovot, Ramle and Kafr Kana. According to the Health Ministry, some 400 suicides occur in Israel every year.
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