The Werther Effect

“Hope is a necessity for normal life and the major
weapon against the suicide impulse.”
– Karl A. Menninger

The past couple days, after the passing of Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, my newsfeed has been inundated with articles about the him in the period leading up to this death and reactions from his family, his band-mates and fans in the most excruciating detail. This forced me to reflect not just about the individual Bennington and his own ruminations about suicide, but also brought into focus for me, the unhealthy way that the media – social and traditional – tend to report on suicide.
Right here at home in Guyana, we seem to excel at ticking off all of the boxes of what not to do when covering a story about someone who became desperate enough to take their own life. The papers seem to revel in peppering the word “suicide” in the pieces as often as possible in a conscious effort to make the report as sensational as possible. They really do love that “star-crossed lovers” angle.
A while back I was reading about the “Werther Effect”. The “Werther effect” refers to the important role played by imitation of suicidal behaviours, when such stories are publicized or described in fact or fiction: otherwise called “Copycat Suicides.” Back in 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the towering German literary figure, published his book, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” “Werther Fever” spread throughout Europe after the book was published, with young men dressing up like Werther.
And it went beyond dressing up. Reputedly, some of them committed suicide in a similar manner to the protagonist, giving rise to some of the earliest examples of copycat suicides. I certainly wouldn’t say that Goethe’s book or reports of suicides in the media cause persons to commit suicide; but when these suicides are so heavily covered, when so many details of their lives are published, it makes it easier for someone else to identify with that person.
And if that reader is already in a state where they were vulnerable or predisposed to taking their life, hearing about someone with similar problems choosing to end their own life, may present suicide as an appropriate option. Many countries have national journalism codes regarding the coverage of suicide.
In the absence of these, reporters are expected to follow the sort of guidelines of the World Health Organization and other public health bodies for coverage of suicide. They’re expected to use extreme restraint in covering these death: keep the word “suicide” out of the headline, don’t romanticize the death, and limit the number of stories. Instead of playing up the sensational aspects of the suicide, maybe there could be more focus on presenting non-suicide alternatives – the “Papageno Effect.” Eponymously named after a character from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, Papageno, who was contemplating suicide until other characters showed him a different way to resolve his problems.
Here and elsewhere we really should try to have that protective effect instead of glamorizing or romanticizing suicides. We really should be doing our best to emphasize the importance of mental health and the importance of having honest conversations about these very real issues.
We need to move away from being a culture that labels persons suffering from mental illnesses as ‘mad people’ and call a psychiatric hospital ‘Berbice Madhouse’. Be observant, be supportive. Sometimes it might be something, sometimes it might be nothing, but there at least needs to be a conversation.