“This is not a horror movie or a TV show: this was someone’s life.”
Twenty eight year old Tim Bergling, known to the world as Avicii, died on 20 April this year. His family released a statement days later confirming that the cause of death was suicide. It was a shock, but not a surprise: the Swedish EDM DJ had been vocal about his struggles with his mental health, particularly the anxiety and alcoholism that were brought on by his extreme fame. He had been in physical pain, too, having had to go into hospital for problems with his liver and gall bladder, both brought on by excessive drinking.
It is important that we talk about Bergling’s death and the fact that it was by suicide. It is important that we acknowledge the role the music industry played in his demise, given how often and how urgently he apparently begged his managers to let him cancel tours to look after his mental health, as anyone who watched the documentary Avicii: True Stories will have witnessed. It is important we understand that fame helped to kill this man - he was neither mentally prepared nor physically strong enough to survive the harsh touring schedule imposed on him, especially as a notorious introvert. In the documentary, he speaks about how he needed a drink before performing, which essentially led to his problems with alcoholism. He tried to get out of multiple professional engagements to look after himself, but his management team always seemed to win out.
These are the conversations we should be having – sensitive, informed ones about death, fame, suicide, humanity and accountability.
We should not be talking about the method by which Bergling took his own life. That conversation ought to be off limits to us.
In the past 48 hours, however, major media outlets around the world, outlets with hordes of followers and millions of readers, have published the exact way Bergling killed himself. They have literally put it in headlines. This is inexcusable, unforgivable and woefully negligent. There are very clear guidelines for media reporting on suicide, and the most urgent rule is that we do not disclose the method of suicide. Every reputable mental health expert on the planet advises against it – organisations like Sane, Mind and The Samaritans all have very clear guidelines – and for extremely good reason. Suicide contagion – the phenomenon whereby vulnerable people are ‘inspired’ to copy a high profile suicide – is very real, and very dangerous.
To publish the intimate, gruesome details of Bergling’s last hours is to disregard the very real risk that information poses to people already fighting their own mental health battles. This is a case of websites savagely and arrogantly putting the number of hits they want on a story over and above the safety of their readers – and that should make us angry, wary and sad. It is also a gross intrusion on the privacy that Bergling and his family deserve.
We must not indulge this kind of suicide clickbait. Opening an article about the way Bergling died only serves to validate the site that side-stepped ethics in order to publish it. It tells them that there is an audience for this kind of thing, and that we will listen to our curiosity over our morality. It does us no good to know the details of someone’s death, beyond a base and morbid desire to shock ourselves with a reminder of our own mortality. This is not a horror movie or a TV show: this was someone’s life, and the way they chose to end it very much belongs to them.
Bergling’s suicide is not ours to broadcast and it is not ours to dwell on for entertainment. Because that’s essentially what these articles are: a form of grim entertainment. Knowing the method of suicide serves no personal, psychological, moral or social purpose. There is simply no defensible reason to write the exact details and anyone who does so has wilfully sacrificed their own integrity to do so.
The conversation we should be having is a bigger, braver one than that. Bergling spoke about his own problems with courage and candour. In True Stories, he is heard saying: “I have told them this: ‘I won’t be able to play any more’. I have said, like, ‘I’m going to die’. I have said it so many times. And so I don’t want to hear that I should entertain the thought of doing another gig.”
In his honour, we ought to do the same – about our own mental health, about the fragility of the celebrities we worship, about the dangers of fame and corporate greed, about the plight of alcoholism, and about the finality of suicide. Ordinary people have been sharing their stories of grief, loss, suicide and mental illness on social media in the wake of Bergling’s highly publicised death and the best thing we can do right now is listen to and respect those stories. We can choose to give Bergling some dignity in his death by speaking with genuine care, tact and love – not just about him but about ourselves and one another, too.
According to the latest report by The Samaritans, there were 6,639 suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland in 2015. The highest rate of suicide was among men aged 40 to 44. Female suicide is at its highest rate in a decade. Suicide is a very real, complex cause of death here and around the world – made all the more likely by an ailing mental healthcare system and a series of governments too callous to provide adequate funding for people with mental illnesses.
Perhaps, each time a famous person dies and the headlines about their death proliferate, we could speak that bit louder and more desperately about the need to do better by people who need help. Maybe, instead of loitering on trashy Hollywood news websites reading exactly how someone took their own life, we could divert our energies into a constructive, sensitive conversation about mental health and what we must do to protect vulnerable people – people like Tim Bergling.
If you need to talk to someone about your mental health, feel triggered by the press around Tim Bergling’s death or want to reach out, please consider contacting one of the UK’s mental health organisations. You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 in the UK and Republic of Ireland, or visit Samaritans.org. You can contact Sane on 003 304 7000 or sane.org.uk