Dealing With Tragedy: Suicide and Depression

Dealing With Tragedy: Suicide and Depression

by Tracy Johnson

There are many kinds of tragedies that affect the audience in deeply personal ways. Each is sensitive in different ways. It’s particularly challenging to talk about events involving kids. But when a celebrity ends their life by suicide, it’s even more complicated.

A celebrity suicide tragedy touches the lives of listeners, particularly fans, in a deeply personal way. The public is interested, intrigued and will be seeking more information. And media will oblige by talking about it constantly for a few days. But that media coverage creates a side effect. It’s called “suicide contagion.”

After all, if celebrities like Robin Williams, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain can’t find happiness, many listeners lose hope. That’s particularly true if they already battle depression.

It may be enough to push them over the edge.

Adding to the problem is the fact that the suicide rate has spiked in recent years, particularly among teenage girls. They may not be in your station’s target audience (or they might), but it’s likely that teenage girls affect most listeners in the audience. They may be a daughter, granddaughter, niece or sibling. So it’s sensitive.

Talking About Suicide

As with every topic, each personality must find a unique perspective to deal with this issue. What is appropriate for one show is not for another.

When seeking the right angle, follow the guidelines for dealing with all tragedies listed here.

But there are additional considerations for dealing with suicide:

Avoid Details

At least, avoid details about the death.

Remember, the information is already released, and it’s easy for listeners to find the facts. So talking about how they took their life is not necessary. It’s (probably) not your job to break news or cover a story as a journalist. So stay away from the grisly facts.

After Robin William’s death by hanging, suicides using that method increased by 32%.

And reading the suicide note may sound like a good idea at the time. It may add drama to the story, but it puts a spotlight on the celebrity. Sensationalizing details can push at-risk listeners to think about following the same path, partly because of the attention it generates. Don’t be a part of that.

Be Generally Positive

A show about suicide sounds like it would be dark, depressing and hard to listen to. And it can be, for sure.

Don’t be upbeat, bright and cheery. And whatever you do, don’t make jokes about it.

But stay within the range of the traits in your Personality Profile. Find the right angle and deal with this dark topic in a sensitive, emotional, caring and positive way.

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Be a part of a solution, if possible, even if it’s a small part. You can do this by offering hope and encouragement.

Don’t try to be a counselor. There are professionals for that. By the way, it would be a good idea to add a psychologist or specialist to the cast of experts to draw from. But don’t turn the show into a counseling session, either.

It may be appropriate to offer resources for listeners. And it may not. Don’t turn the show into an infomercial or make it sound like a pitch to drive response. But here’s a resource to promote if appropriate: U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer an online chat option.

Share a Personal Story

Many times, this is a great opportunity to discuss the emotional state that leads to someone taking their life. This could be a platform to expand the range of topics on the show. A natural response is to encourage listeners to “be kind”, but that doesn’t really help with depression. And depression is usually what leads to suicide.

If you, or someone close to you struggles with depression, this could be an opportunity to relate in a deeply personal way that can not only capture listener attention but help relieve the stigma around depression and mental health. If you have a story to share, this is a great opportunity to share it. I guarantee it will get response, and likely lead to more stories from your audience.

This could be an opportunity to step outside the usual show and become even closer to your fan base.

Free Beer And Hot Wings Personal Story

I call Free Beer and Hot Wings radio’s best kept secret. The syndicated talk show is on rock stations across the country, with a mix of hilarious banter and clever goofing around with one another. But the show also has depth and heart.

Following Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, Free Beer and Hot Wings spent four hours on the topic.

Listen to the highlights of this remarkable, emotional show. They were playing one of their irreverent games, Name That Blank, when news broke. Few shows are able to adjust, without the topic turning into chaos. But listen to how quickly they pivoted, and explored the topic.

Shortly after, cast members Hot Wings and Joe shared their personal stories and experiences of dealing with depression. Here are highlights of the segment.

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The topic took root and took off. And the show has hijacked the topic to make it their own. In this segment, listen as Free Beer’s friend calls and tells his story:

The next segment is where the break takes on an even more personal complexion. Show producer and co-host Justin shares his personal battles:

And finally, this break is extended to the military, an important component of the show’s audience. Here’s a shorter segment on soldiers fighting PTSD.

These are hard stories to tell. And they’re hard shows to do. They can also be hard to listen to. But the stories are hard to turn off. This type of left turn flies in the face of advice to always be consistent in delivering what the audience expects. But there are times to break with convention and stand out. This was one of those times, and was a truly memorable show.


A celebrity suicide doesn’t happen often, thank God. Because of that, most shows are caught unprepared.

Print or bookmark this article and save it for future reference. In the meantime, have the show discussion now. It’ll help the planning when that next tragedy strikes. At a minimum, make three decisions:

  • Discuss the best practices for Dealing With Tragedies.
  • How your radio show respond to a celebrity suicide?
  • What is the unique angle we will take?
  • Who will we call on as a resource?

Finally, realize that it’s not necessary for every show to deal with the topic. These tragedies are high profile and attract listener attention, so it’s best if you do. But the appropriate response for your show and station may be to avoid it.

Not saying anything about it is better than going into it without a solid strategy or plan.

Nobody knows when it will happen next. But unfortunately, it will happen. And when it does, you should be prepared with the proper response.

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Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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