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A copycat suicide is defined as a duplication or copycat 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. Sometimes this is known as a Werther effect, following the Werther novel of Goethe.
The well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide. This is referred to as suicide contagion 7. They occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster 7. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include the American musician Kurt Cobain and the Japanese musician Hide.
To prevent this type of suicide, it is customary in some countries for the media to discourage suicide reports except in special cases.
The nature of copycat suicides suggests that it is a phenomenon that must have been with us since the development of civilization. One of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide arose from Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), published in 1774. In that work the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to commit suicide. This resulted in a ban of the book in several places. Hence the term "Werther effect", used in the technical literature to designate copycat suicides.1
Factors in suicide reporting
Publishing the means of suicides, romanticized and sensationalized reporting, particularly about celebrities, suggestions that there is an epidemic, glorifying the deceased and simplifying the reasons all lead to increases in the suicide rate. Increased rate of suicides has been shown to occur up to ten days after a television report.2
Many people interviewed after the suicide of a relative or friend have a tendency to simplify the issues; their grief can lead to their minimizing or ignoring significant factors. Over 90 percent of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death [How to reference and link to summary or text] with mood disorders and substance abuse being the two most common. These are often undiagnosed or untreated. Treatment of these disorders can result in reductions in the suicide rate. Reports that minimise the impact of psychiatric disorders contribute to copycat suicides whereas reports that mention this factor and provide help-line contact numbers and advice for where sufferers may gain assistance can reduce suicides.
Social Proof Model
An alternate model to explain copycat suicide, called "social proof" by Cialdini,6 goes beyond the theories of glorification and simplification of reasons to look at why copycat suicides are so similar, demographically and in actual methods, to the original publicized suicide. In the social proof model, people imitate those who seem similar, despite or even because of societal disapproval. This model is important because it has nearly opposite ramifications for what the media ought to do about the copycat suicide effect than the standard model does.
Various countries have national journalism codes which range from one extreme of, "Suicide and attempted suicide should in general never be given any mention." (Norway, Brazil) to a more moderate, "In cases of suicide, publishing or broadcasting information in an exaggerated way that goes beyond normal dimensions of reporting with the purpose of influencing readers or spectators should not occur. Photography, pictures, visual images or film depicting such cases should not be made public." (Turkey)3 Many countries do not have national codes but do have in-house guidelines along similar lines. In the U.S. there are no industry wide standards and a survey of inhouse guides of 16 US daily newspapers showed that only three mentioned the word suicide and none gave guidelines about publishing the method of suicide. Craig Branson, online director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), has been quoted as saying, "Industry codes are very generic and totally voluntary. Most ethical decisions are left to individual editors at individual papers. The industry would fight any attempt to create more specific rules or standards, and editors would no doubt ignore them."3
Australia is one of the few countries where there is a concerted effort to teach journalism students about this subject. The Mindframe national media initiative4 followed an ambivalent response by the Australian Press Council to an earlier media resource kit issued by Suicide Prevention Australia and the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention. The UK-based media ethics charity MediaWise provides training for journalists on reporting suicide related issues.
- Heathers, a 1989 black comedy film in which the ostensible suicides of popular high school students spur copycat attempts.
1 Preventing suicide: A report for media professionals - World Health Organization, 2000
2 Philips DP. The impact of fictional television stories on US adult fatalities: new evidence on the effect of the mass media on violence. American journal of sociology, 1982, 87: 1340-1359.
3 Covering suicide worldwide: media responsibilities The MediaWise Trust September 2001
4 Reporting Suicide: Guidance for journalists Guidelines from The MediaWise Trust, available in English, Spanish and French
5 Mindframe national media initiative Australian Government - Department of health and ageing
6 Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Cialdini, 1998, ISBN 0-688-12816-5
- O'Carroll, P.W., & Potter, L.B. (1994). Suicide contagion and the reporting of suicide: Recommendations from a national workshop. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
- Velting, D.M., & Gould M.S. (1997). Suicide contagion. In R.W. Maris, M.M. Silverman, & S.S. Canetto (Eds.), Annual review of suicidology (pp. 96-136). New York: Guilford Press.
- Wasserman, I. (1984). Imitation and suicide: A reexamination of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review, 49, 427-436.
- The Copycat Effect (ISBN 0-7434-8223-9)
- Suicide Clusters (ISBN 0-571-12991-9)
- Copycat Effect (Article that discusses the how the sensational coverage of violent events tends to provoke similar events and the journalistic ethics involved).
- Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media - American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Suicide and the media Links, resources and articles from The MediaWise Trust
- Gregor S, Copycat suicide: The influence of the media 2004, Australian Psychological Society
- Stack S, Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2003;57:238-240
- Herman J, Reporting on suicide Australian Press Council news, February 1998
- Suicide and the media New Zealand youth suicide prevention strategy
- "Suicide and the Media: Recommendations on Suicide Reporting for Media Professionals (in Chinese)", The Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, The University of Hong Kong
- ko:베르테르 효과
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