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The Werther Effect- The Phenomenon Of Copycat Suicides


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a novel named The Sorrows of Young Werther. No one, in fact not even Wolfgang himself would not have thought that as soon as people read it, young men will start to mimic the protagonist Werther who shoots himself after being rejected by the woman he loves. Who knew that around 40 young people back then would end up doing the same when surrounded by the feelings of hopelessness.


Since then, there have been similar cases of copying of suicides that have been witnessed time and again: whether it was Marilyn Moore’s and Kurt Cobain’s suicide or when the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why went on air, teenagers rampantly tried to ‘copy’ Hannah’s suicide attempt.


To investigate and understand the trends of such copycat suicides, sociologist David Phillips and his colleagues in 1974 tried to define cases of imitative suicides which were called the Werther effect, named after Goethe’s character. The effect is also called copycat suicide which refers to the phenomenon when there is an increase in suicide attempts due to a publicized suicide.


In the study conducted by David, he found out that every time The New York Times published a story about the suicide of a famous figure, the rate of suicide increased by almost 12%. The study showed that reporting of suicide by a celebrity affects those more who already have thoughts of taking such action as their way of thinking is ‘validated’ by such events than other fans. This is called a suicide contagion which spreads through various channels like the school system, community clusters, and so on.


Reading about the effect raises a variety of questions like whether it is a myth or how can reporting of such events triggers others to take similar steps. Studies conducted have also shown time and again that representation of suicide incidents in the media directly affects those who are already at risk of doing so. Describing how it was done and sensationalized depiction in the media gives a green signal to those who are highly at a risk to take such a drastic step because, for them, it becomes the reason for the kind of end they have been longing for.


Robbert Cialdini gave the social proof model which explains that when individuals are not able to comprehend how to behave or react in certain situations, then they imitate the behavior of those who are similar to them. Thereby, the risks of suicide deaths increase if the individuals find similarity between themselves and the deceased.


As the effect widely comes into play due to insensitive journalism, journalists need to be sensitive while addressing the issue of suicide and talking about it. For individuals who are in crisis, the representation of suicide can have both positive and negative effects on their mental health.


WHO suggests some do’s and don’ts of journalism to prevent copycat suicides in the future which are:


DO’S:

  1. Providing information about where to seek help.

  2. Educating the public about myths and suicide prevention.

  3. Interviewing the bereaved family or friends with caution.

  4. Acknowledging the media professionals may themselves be affected by such an incident.

DON’TS:

  1. Refraining from unduly reporting such stories.

  2. Preventing the use of language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide.

  3. Not describing explicitly the method used and the site or location.

  4. Refraining to use any kind of graphics such as the photographs or video footage or social media links.


As the media in itself plays a major role in influencing the minds, one effect called the Papageno effect also goes hand in hand with the Werther effect. The effect explains how media can prevent a decrease in the suicide rate by sensitive journalism. The effect is named after a character from The Magic Flute, an opera by Mozart where his attempt of suicide is prevented by three boys by reminding him of alternatives to death.


It is important and necessary to understand that suicide is a sensitive issue. It is necessary to talk about it, to create awareness about it, however, it is supposed to be done in a way that is not going to trigger such responses from the audience. Undoubtedly, the media has to report the events occurring around us but they too need to understand their role and responsibilities while reporting anything and everything. The discussions are required to break the taboos but in a way that is not harmful to those addressing it or for those grasping it.


If you know someone or are yourself dealing with some mental crisis and having suicidal or negative thoughts, then contact a mental health professional as soon as possible. Some of the helpline numbers are:

  1. AASRA: 09820466726

  2. Fortis Stress Helpline: +91-8376804102

  3. PSSMHS: 080 – 4611 0007

  4. Mitram Foundation: 080-2572-2573

  5. Arpita Suicide Prevention Helpline: 080-23655557

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copycat_suicide

  2. http://www.pleaselive.org/blog/the-two-effects-werther-vs-papageno-alexa-moody/


by- Itti Mahajan

graphic by- Jezer Jojo

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