The Werther Effect

About a year or two ago I made a post about something called the Werther effect, and I feel its a good time to bring it up again.

The Werther Effect is named after a novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This novel outlined the journeys of a young man who eventually died by suicide. The great success of this novel caused a huge cultural impact, affecting clothing style, turning Goethe into an overnight celebrity, and also causing a wave of suicides inspired by the book.  It is the first known example of the copycat suicides phenomenon.

The Werther effect is, in essence, another name for copycat suicides, so I may use both terms interchangeably throughout this post. This is the primal reason behind people being afraid to talk about suicide. There is a very thin line between the need to talk openly about mental health and suicide and glamorizing suicide to initiate another wave of copycats. If suicide is not discussed with caution and tact, then it is better to not discuss it at all.

So how can we be sure we are talking about suicide in the appropriate way, to spur help and hope as opposed to copycats?

Samaritans.org provides these tips for talking/writing about suicide:

Avoid explicit or technical details of suicides
If you are sharing a personal experience of a past attempt, or you are reporting a suicide that happened recently, avoid the grisly details. By laying out one person’s plan, another person can pick it up and “recycle” that plan for their own attempt.

Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide
Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes. Accounts which try to explain a suicide on the basis of a single incident, for example unrequited romantic feelings, should be challenged.

Avoid brushing over the realities of a suicide
Depiction of suicide in a TV program may be damaging if it shows a character who has attempted suicide as immediately recovered or if it glosses over the grim reality of suicide. For example, failing to show slow liver failure following a paracetamol overdose.

Avoid disclosing the contents of any suicide note
This information may sensationalize or romanticize the suicide. It may also provide information which encourages other people to identify with the deceased.

Discourage the use of permanent memorials
An outpouring of grief and expressions of regret may send unhelpful messages to other distressed and potentially suicidal people.

Avoid labeling places as suicide ‘hotspots’
Advertising such locations provides detail about methods of suicide and may play a part in drawing more people to that location.

Don’t overemphasize the ‘positive’ results of a person’s suicide
A dangerous message from the media is that suicide achieves results; it makes people sorry or it makes people eulogise you. For instance, a soap opera story line or newspaper coverage where a child’s suicide or suicide attempt seems to result in separated parents reconciling or school bullies being publicly shamed may offer an appealing option to a despairing child in similar circumstances.

Encourage public understanding of the complexity of suicide
People don’t decide to take their own life in response to a single event, however painful that event may be, and social conditions alone cannot explain suicide either. The reasons an individual takes their own life are manifold, and suicide should not be portrayed as the inevitable outcome of serious personal problems. Discussing the risk factors encourages a better understanding of suicide as part of a much wider issue and challenge for society.

Expose the common myths about suicide
There is an opportunity to educate the public by challenging these common myths.

Consider the timing
The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people make the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of ‘another suicide, just days after…’, which might imply a connection.

Don’t romanticize suicide or make events surrounding it sound melodramatic
Wanting your readers and audience to identify with the person that has died or the event is natural but reporting which overly highlights community expressions of grief may suggest the local community is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning their death. Reporting suicide as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss is more beneficial in preventing further deaths.

Include details of further sources of information and advice
Listing appropriate sources of local and national help or support at the end of an article or a program shows the person who might be feeling suicidal that they are not alone and that they have the opportunity to make positive choices.

Look after yourself
Writing about suicide can be very distressing in itself, especially if the subject touches something in your own experience. Talk it over with colleagues, friends, family or another helpful resource.

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