On a previous blog, I took the time to outline what the Werther effect was. In essence, the “Werther Effect” is the official-sounding name for “Copycat Suicides”. The Werther effect was coined around the late 1700’s when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a book titled The Sorrows of Young Werther. In this particular work (spoiler alert!) the main character, Werther, finds himself in a love triangle, and he believes the only way out is by taking his life. The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe’s first major success, however this success lead to many copycat suicides as fans of his work found that they could connect in some way with Werther, thus deciding to take their own lives as well, many in the same manner outlined in the book.
This phenomenon brought to light the idea of copycat suicides (an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media) and suicide contagion (the process whereby one suicide or suicidal act within a school, community, or geographic area increases the likelihood that others will attempt or complete suicide.)
This also brought to light a very thin line that we walk in the mental health field. There is a myth that says, “If we talk about suicide, we will give someone the idea to attempt suicide” – and the Werther effect certainly seems to back up that claim. Because of this, many community members tend to shy away from discussion of suicide at all in fears of creating the Werther effect. However, there certainly is a line (though it may appear thin at first) and the other end of that line is a very important factor called the Papageno effect.
The Papageno effect is named after a character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, wherein the character loses his love and plans his suicide. His attempt is prevented at the last minute by three boys who remind him that there are alternatives to dying. The reason for choosing to name this effect after Papageno is quite simple: for individuals in crisis, the way that the media reports on suicide could have either a positive or negative effect on the individual’s decision.
Research continues to show that reports on suicide – in the media, self-disclosure, viral posts, etc. – can have a profoundly positive impact and save lives, provided that the reports are done in a responsible manner. And the guidelines for responsible reporting really are not hard to follow at all. The line between Werther and Papageno can seem thin from far away, but it all boils doing to following some really simple rules, and these rules really can be the difference between life and death.
Suicide is a public health issue. Without hesitation, it should be talked about – but it shouldn’t be thrown around. Several months ago we lost Robin Williams to suicide, a loss that shook the world. With that loss there was a spike in suicides – but there was also a spike in calls to the suicide prevention lifeline, and a spike in referrals for mental health treatment. There were certainly reports about his passing that contributed to the Werther effect, most likely because the authors of those articles did not know the guidelines to follow, but there certainly were reports that contributed to the Papageno effect as well.
What should we do? We should talk about it. We should report it. And we should contribute and encourage the Papageno effect as often as possible. The reality is that the more we talk about mental health and suicide in ways that break down stigma, that promote help, and that normalize an otherwise scary topic, the more likely hurting individuals will receive the help they so desperately need.
So how do we promote the Papageno effect? Here are some research-backed guidelines:
INSTEAD OF THIS:
– Big or sensationalistic headlines, or prominent placement (e.g., “Kurt Cobain used Shotgun to Commit Suicide”)
– Including photos/videos of the location or method of death, grieving family, friends, memorials, or funerals
– Describing recent suicides as an “epidemic”, “skyrocketing”, or other strong terms
– Describing a suicide as inexplicable, or “without warning”
– Describing or quoting the contents of a suicide note
– Reporting on suicide in a way that is similar to reporting on crimes (i.e., use the term “died by suicide” or “death by suicide” as opposed to “committed suicide”)
– Quoting/Interviewing police or first responders about the causes of suicide
– Referring to a suicide as “successful”, “unsuccessful”, or “failed”
– Inform the audience without sensationalizing (e.g., “Kurt Cobain dead at 27”)
– Use school/work or family photos; include hotline logo or local crisis phone numbers
– Carefully investigate current CDC statistics and use non-sensational words like “rise” and “higher”
– Most, but not all, suicides show warning signs. Include a list of warning signs to look for and what to do if you see them
– Report on suicide as a public health issue
– Seek advice from suicide prevention experts
– Describe a death as “died by suicide”, “death by suicide”, or “killed him/herself”
And, as always, if you are reporting on suicide in any manner and you are unsure of your language, reach out and ask a professional for their opinion. Remember that discussions of mental health and suicide are vital to breaking stigmas, but only if they are done correctly.