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From Werther to Papageno: Understanding and Preventing Copycat Suicides

werther copycat suicide papageno

***The staff at Medium Magazine are not trained in mental health treatments and/or suicide prevention. If you are experiencing troubles, please seek professional help through a licensed therapist or call a suicide hotline from your country.***

The spike of suicide-related thoughts and behaviours after exposure to suicide, either directly or through media and entertainment, has been well-documented. This phenomenon of suicide contagion, also called copycat suicide or the Werther-effect, has led to the development of numerous media guidelines on responsible suicide coverage. As it makes up part of reality, suicide should not be banned from entertainment and the media; however, the way it is covered needs to be carefully considered. How we display and talk about suicides has an enormous impact on public perception and, if done correctly, might even save lives. 

Contagion of Suicide: The Werther Effect

I possess so much, but my love for her absorbs it all. I possess so much, but without her I have nothing.

It is a novel out of which this deeply romantic yet tragic quote stems, which gave name to the Werther-effect. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the protagonist decides to commit suicide after encountering a failed love affair. So when I first heard about the Werther effect, I expected it to relate to unrequited love or broken hearts; however, what it describes is an even darker reality. Namely, it refers to the phenomenon that publicized suicides – whether fictional or real – frequently lead to an emulation effect among the public. By way of example, the book’s first publication in 1774 was followed by a wave of copycat suicides among its readers, many of which imitated the exact method outlined by Goethe.

With his research in the 1970s, David Phillips coined the term Werther effect and was the first of many to systematically study this phenomenon of suicide contagion. Since then, years and years of research have confirmed that there is indeed an effect of publicized suicides on suicide rates among susceptible individuals. 

 

Suicide Depiction in the Media 

The glorification of the protagonist’s suicide might lead to an increase in suicidal behaviours among the audience.

If we expected the years of research into this topic to lead to more sensitivity and carefulness in suicide coverage, broadcastings such as 13 Reasons Why have proven us wrong. Looking back at the huge debate the series provoked about media responsibility and the susceptibility of young people to suicide, some might say that it seems as if no one had ever heard of the phenomenon of copycat suicide. While the series, for good reasons, received lots of positive feedback; mental health and suicide prevention professionals, also for good reasons, expressed concerns that the glorification of the protagonist’s suicide might lead to an increase in suicidal behaviours among the audience. Indeed, a spike in suicide rates among the series’ target group was observed within three months after the show’s release. Although such findings need to be interpreted with care, they indeed provide further evidence for the Werther effect and highlight the necessity of a more thoughtful portrayal of suicide in media and entertainment. 

 

A Double-Edged Sword 

Deducing that we should not talk or even report about suicide, however, would be a misconception. The range of research supporting the Werther effect, at the same time, supports the so-called Papageno effect. Another 18th-century-character-effect, you wonder? Oh, yes. On a more positive note, we encounter the Papageno effect, named after one of the protagonists of Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”. Papageno, having lost his beloved Pamina, finds himself in a similarly dark situation to Werther. Unlike Werther, Papageno is saved by three child-spirits who remind him of all the alternatives to dying. Broken down to its essence, the Papageno effect emphasizes the possible preventive effects of suicide-related media content. By presenting alternatives to crises and embedding mental health promotion strategies, media and entertainment can not only prevent copycat suicides but even help individuals to cope with difficulties. What might be feared, thus, also bears huge potential. Even the widely criticized broadcast 13 Reasons Why appears to have yielded some positive effects, inspiring some of the recipients to seek out real-world information about the covered topics and to talk to peers and family members about their problems. 

If suicide coverage is important, then careful and considerate coverage is vital

It is important to resist the urge to misjudge the situation in light of the Werther effect and quit talking about suicide once and for all. As we all know, avoiding to talk about something does not make it magically disappear. If suicide coverage is important, then careful and considerate coverage is vital

 

Media Guidelines 

In an attempt to reduce the negative consequences of the Werther effect and to enhance the positive Papageno effect, various research-based guidelines for news media reporting on suicide have been published. Even though these guidelines vary in their intensity, they share a broad agreement. In the current media environment dominated by sensationalism and ephemerality, it appears difficult for media and entertainment professionals to respectfully and considerately report about suicide. Therefore, it seems especially important to review and highlight the consensus among the guidelines which organizations such as the WHO, the Samaritans, and the IPSO have provided. Below, I have summarized the five most striking principles. More detailed guidelines along with in-depth reasoning behind them can be found on the organizations’ websites. 

  1. Media should not explicitly or graphically describe the suicide’s method, location, or similar specifics. 
  2. Media should frame suicide as a public health issue that is preventable through the right treatment and provide resources about where to seek help.
  3. Media should avoid speculating about the trigger or cause. Suicide is a complex issue that should not be depicted as the reaction to one single problem. 
  4. Media should remain factual and clear and, on the other hand, avoid the use of emotive, sensationalized, or romanticized language. 
  5. Media should not give the topic too much attention through excessive reporting, front-page placement, or heavy repetition.

 

These guidelines, albeit simple, can make a difference between Papageno and Werther, life and death. 

Due to its highly sensitive nature, suicide is one of the most complex topics for journalists to cover; they face the dilemma of wanting to inform the public while minimizing the impact on vulnerable individuals. Obviously, the phenomenon of copycat suicides is not solely attributable to the media nor the entertainment industry. However, suicides are inevitable risks, and sensationalized media content is modifiable. Why shouldn’t we tackle the issue where it has proven to be effective? Imitation suicides and suicidal behaviour among the vulnerable can be avoided, even decreased, if the provided guidelines are respected. These guidelines, albeit simple, can make a difference between Papageno and Werther, life and death. 

***The staff at Medium Magazine are not trained in mental health treatments and/or suicide prevention. If you are experiencing troubles, please seek professional help through a licensed therapist or call a suicide hotline from your country.*** 

 

Cover: Adam Kontor

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