Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Casualty 'sparked copycat overdoses'
Casualty features dramatic medical scenes
The number of people attempting overdoses jumped 17% in the week after an episode of Casualty featuring a similar suicide bid, according to a scathing study.
The episode of the BBC drama showed a depressed RAF pilot who took an overdose of paracetamol.
As well as the overall rise in overdoses, incidents involving paracetamol increased, they said.
The researchers say their findings "raise serious questions about the advisability of the media portraying suicidal behaviour".
But a spokeswoman for Casualty insisted that programme-makers always took their responsibilities seriously.
She said: "Throughout its 13-year history Casualty has earned respect and in some cases praise for tackling issues that are serious and that happen on an everyday basis in accident and emergency departments."
Mal Young, head of drama series for the BBC, added that he had no plans to change drama guidelines in the light of the research.
"The guidelines are very clear. Our responsibility to our audience is paramount.
"We never enter into any subject without thinking about the consequences," he said.
He added that the Casualty programme had clearly shown that taking an overdose can lead to death.
The research was led by Professor Keith Hawton. The results are published in the British Medical Journal on Friday.
The researchers said: "The possibility that media representation of suicide and deliberate self-harm may encourage suicidal behaviour in vulnerable individuals has attracted considerable attention."
They pointed out that previous research has had mixed findings - some studies have reported a temporary rise in the suicide rate following news reports of a suicide while others have recorded no change.
They decided to investigate the effects of a single programme, the BBC One hospital drama Casualty.
As well as monitoring how many people attended general hospitals with self-poisoning, the researchers conducted a questionnaire survey of patients.
This was designed to establish if there was a direct link between Casualty and the patient's actions.
Raised levels for two weeks
The 17% increase in overdoses in the first week after the programme was followed by a 9% increase in the second week.
Levels were back to normal in the third week.
They found that the increase was greatest among those aged 25 to 34 - the same age as the man depicted taking an overdose in Casualty.
They said: "Casualty viewers might be more aware of paracetamol as a dangerous means of overdose because of their general interest in medical matters.
"However, after the broadcast the proportion of patients who were Casualty viewers and used paracetamol for self-poisoning doubled.
"This is an important finding suggesting that viewing the episode had influenced the choice of substance."
In conclusion they called on media producers to consider how they could use their "clearly influential role" to encourage people at risk to seek help.
Television educates audience
Another study, also published in Friday's British Medical Journal, found that the same episode of Casualty improved people's awareness of the dangers of paracetamol.
A week after the broadcast they sent questionnaires to members of the BBC Television Opinion Panel.
It questioned their knowledge about the effects of paracetamol on the liver, and the questions were repeated after 32 weeks.
They found that those who had watched the programme had a greater level of knowledge on the subject than those who had not, and that they retained that knowledge.
The researchers, led by Dr Susan O'Connor of the United Bristol Healthcare Trust, said: "Television is an important potential source of medical information.
"Medical messages broadcast within television programmes are likely to have an impact on the knowledge of the general public.
"Editors should be aware of this and ensure they are accurate and complete."