The tendency for suicide to incite imitation, especially if the death is highly publicized or romanticisized, is persistent, In September, 1774, Goethe published The Sufferings of Young Werther, a book that portrayed a young man who shot himself over the love of a young woman. It became a best seller, as well as the impetus for a spate of suicides: young men were found dead by gunshot, dressed in blue frock coats and yellow waistcoats, with a copy of Goethe's novel nearby. In an attempt to stop the epidemic of suicides, the book was banned in Italy, Germany and Denmark. In 1974, sociologist David Phillips coined the phrase Werther effect to describe the phenomena of suicide contagion.
Kay Redfield Jamison
Suicide contagion, or the increase in suicides after a prominent or highly publisized suicide, have been reported throughout history and around the world. There is evidence of suicide clusters in Canada, Japan and England and there was a 12% increase in the rate of suicides by overdoses in the months following the death of Marilyn Monroe. Nearly 1000 people lept into the volcanic depths of Mount Mihara, in the three years after Meiko Ukei did so in the hopes of being lifted heavenward in a billow of smoke.
A contagion, a type of epidemic, must be stopped. But how?
In 600 BCE, a the king of Rome ended a spate of suicides amongst his soldiers by declaring that bodies of all suicides be nailed to a cross and put on public display. In similar response to an epidemic of suicides among young Greek woman in the 4th century BCE, a local magistrate ordered that the body of any woman found dead by hanging be dragged naked through the streets. Similar laws were passed centuries later in Marseilles and even Napoleon was forced to issue orders to curb suicides amongst his men.
We live in a day and age where such measures would not be tolerated. Suicide prevention groups and public health agencies, instead focus on the influential role of the media
, since it is thought (and indeed, proven) to play a critical role. In both Austria
, where media groups consulted with suicide experts and took greater care with the reporting of suicides, the rates of suicide clusters have decreased
. There is certainly a need to exercise greater judgement in the reporting of deaths by suicide, espcially of famous
and highly influential persons.
Adolescents often imagine that the attention or retaliation denied to them in life may come their way through death or that suicide is more acceptable by its having been carried out by others more famous or accomplished
Kay Redfield Jamison
In 1994, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the following recommendations for the media. The idea is not to censor the media or ban completely the reporting of suicides, but rather it is a set of guidelines encouraging more responsible reporting. Since there is scientific evidence linking news coverage of suicides and suicide contagion, the media and public officials must be aware and sensitive in their coverage of these events.
Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide
Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interacation of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems. Public officials and the media should carefully explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide. Cataloguing the problems that could have played a causative role in a suicide is not necessary, but acknowledgement of these problems is recommended.
Engaging in repetitive, ongoing or excessive reporting of suicide in the news
Repetitive and ongoing coverage, or prominent coverage, of a suicide tends to promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicde among at-risk persons, expecially among persons fifteen to twenty-four years of age. This pre-occupation appears to be associated with suicide contagion. Information presented to the media should include the association between such coverage and the potential for suicide contagion. Public officials and media representatives should discuss alternative approaches for coverage of newsworthy suicide stories.
Providing sensational coverage of suicide
By its nature, news coverage of suicidal events tends to heighten the general public's preoccupation with suicide. This reaction is also believed to be associated with contagion and the development of suicide clusters. Public officials can help minimize sensationalism by limiting, as much as possible, morbid details in their public discussions of suicide. News media professionals should attempt to decrease the prominence of the news report and avoid the use of dramatic photographs related to the suicide (eg. phototgraphs of the funeral, the deceased person's bedroom, and the site of the suicide)
Reporting "how-to" descriptions of suicide
Describing technical details about the method of suicide is undesirable. For example, reporting that a person died from carbon monoxide poisoning may not be harmful; however, providing details of the mechanism and procedures used to complete the suicide may facilitate initiation of the suicidal behaviour by other at-risk persons.
Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
Suicide is usually a rare act of a troubled or depressed person. Presentation of suicide as a means of coping with personal problems (eg. the breakup of a relationship or retaliation against parental discipline) may suggest suicide as a potential coping mechanism to at-risk persons. Although such factors often seem to trigger a suicidal act, other psychopathological problems are almost always involved. If suicide is presented as an effective means of accomplishing a specific end, it may be perceived by a potentially suicidal person as an attractive solution.
Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide
News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (eg. public eulogies, flying of flags at half mast and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behaviour of the deceased person, rather than mouring their death.
Focusing on the suicide completor's positive characteristics
Empathy for the family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completor's life. For example, friends or teachers might be quoted as saying the deceased person "was a great kid" or "had a bright future" while avoiding mentioning the troubles and problems the deceased person had. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if a suicide completor's problems are not acknowledged along with these laudatory statements, suicidal behaviour may appear attractive to other at-risk persons, especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviours.
Night Falls Fast by Kay Fielding Jamison