Paracetamol self-poisoning, which carries a significant risk of fatal liver damage, is increasing in the UK, especially among adolescents. There is concern that media portrayal of suicidal behaviour may influence its occurrence. We have investigated the effects of two broadcasts of a television drama showing a teenage girl's overdose of paracetamol.
Data from the Oxford Monitoring System for Attempted Suicide were used to examine changes in the number of overdoses and the use of paracetamol in the three week period before and after both broadcasts. An analysis of log-linear models was carried out, using additional data from two previous years, in order to control for the effects of gender, age group, time period, season, year and drug. A questionnaire was used to ascertain whether the programme had influenced patients' decisions to take an overdose or their choice of drug.
An increase in paracetamol overdoses occurred following the first broadcast, but when data from the two previous years were examined and the log-linear analysis was used there was no evidence of significant effects attributable to the broadcasts. The questionnaire study revealed that very few people had seen either episode, and only two claimed that it had influenced them (one in terms of getting help).
It is important to use sound methodology to avoid interpreting chance fluctuations as a media effect. The potential positive benefits of such programmes should also be investigated.