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Did An Impersonation Drive a Dermatologist to Suicide?

According to experts, it's more complicated than that.
April 7, 2015, 9:50pm
Composite via Netflix and Dr. Fredric Brandt's YouTube channel

Note: This article contains discussions of suicide.

A well-known Florida dermatologist-to-the-stars named Dr. Fredric Brandt died at home on Sunday, according to a heartfelt obituary in the Miami Herald. But even that obituary didn't shy away from the fact that the death was a suicide, and that Brandt had been dubbed the "Baron of Botox" by W magazine. They also included a quote from dancer Carolyn Weinkle Lamb, in which she said that "some were put off by the way he looked."

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Madonna's Dermatologist Fredric Brandt Found Dead, Reportedly

— Hollywood Reporter (@THR)April 6, 2015

His looks and reputation are only factors because the Herald—followed by nearly every other news source that mentioned Brandt's death—also pointed out that Brandt had probably been the inspiration for an eccentric aesthetician character on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt played by Martin Short.

But should Short's impersonation be considered a contributing factor to Dr. Brandt's death? According to Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), it shouldn't. And that way of thinking can actually be dangerous. "There are misconceptions that happen as a result of media reporting when a story is oversimplified," he told VICE. And to make matters worse, they can lead to more suicides in the form of a documented "increased risk of contagion."

But how can that be, when over the years many people have received some kind of TV thrashing before taking their own lives? Most of these come from individuals apparently not liking how they looked on reality TV, or cases where they knew they were going to look bad when the program aired and they killed themselves beforehand. For instance:

  • Russell Armstrong was a husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. His reputation as an alleged wife-beater was about to be turned into the plot of a whole season. He committed suicide during the hiatus in 2011 before the season that centered on him could air.
  • Julien Hug, a man who lost on The Bachelorette, was relegated to the background of nearly every scene in which he appeared, except the moment he was kicked off. He committed suicide about one year later.
  • A New Jersey restaurateur named Joe Cerniglia was told by Gordon Ramsay that his business was "about to fucking swim down the Hudson" on an episode of his Fox TV show about browbeating people for their bad cooking. Cerniglia later killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, into the Hudson.

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Reidenberg sees every story like this as "a tragedy, and a horrible loss," but quickly points out without missing a beat that "when you add in other factors, we know it's never one thing." While these stories are all easy to read as a person being driven to suicide by shame or nasty treatment from peers, "ninety percent of the time there's an underlying mental illness to go along with every suicide," and he added that that's true worldwide.

So was Dr. Brandt dealing with a serious mental illness? We don't know yet. He'd been suffering from " an illness," according to his publicist, Jacquie Tractenberg. But all the details aren't out yet, and they may never be. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies reports on suicide in the media (among other topics), and when I spoke to her she called the response to this latest suicide "irresponsible journalism."

"It misinforms the public," McBride told VICE. Stories like this one can foment something called "suicide ideation," a fancy way of saying that if you're struggling with depression, and you read "a story about somebody who is being glorified or somehow lauded or given a lot of attention because they committed suicide because of a specific reason, you're more likely to commit suicide yourself."

So there's probably a link to be found between the impersonation and the suicide, but at the risk of oversimplifying: Oversimplifying is killing people.

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In 2008, when Korean TV superstar Choi Jin-Sil killed herself, her family blamed online cyberbullying. I was living there at the time and witnessed the cyberbullying narrative transform from water-cooler chatter to all-encompassing media frenzy. Adding to the narrative was Choi's rapid elevation into a form of sainthood. It culminated in the passing of an intrusive regulation that torpedoed online privacy in South Korea for several years, before the courts struck it down.

It also brought about a 70 percent increase in the number of suicides there, according to the Washington Post.

"Sometimes people over-identify with what they're seeing in entertainment and the news media," Reidenberg told me. A lot of people get made fun of, and made fun of badly, he explained, but rather than suggest that this kind of thing is the result of a particularly harsh attack from a comedian, he urged me to let people know that "treatment is available," and that "suicide doesn't have to be the outcome."

If you are struggling with depression or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.