A copycat suicide is defined as 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. The publicized suicide serves as a trigger, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide by a susceptible or suggestible person. This is referred to as suicide contagion.
Suicides occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster. Suicide clusters are caused by the social learning of suicide-related behaviors, or "copycat suicides". Point clusters are clusters of suicides in both time and space, and have been linked to direct social learning from nearby individuals. Mass clusters are clusters of suicides in time but not space, and have been linked to the broadcasting of information concerning celebrity suicides via the mass media.
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). Soon after its publication in 1774, young men began to mimic the main character by dressing in yellow pants and blue jackets. In the novel, Werther shoots himself with a pistol after he is rejected by the woman he loves, and shortly after its publication there were reports of young men using the same method to kill themselves in acts of hopelessness.
This resulted in the book being banned in several places. Hence the term "Werther effect", used in the technical literature to designate copycat suicides. The term was coined by researcher David Phillips in 1974.
These suicidal actions tend to happen in the days and sometimes weeks after a suicide is announced. In exceptional cases, such as a widely discussed suicide by a celebrity, an increased level of thinking about suicide may persist for up to one year.
Factors in suicide reporting
Copycat suicide is mostly blamed on the media. A study conducted in 2002 found evidence for "the influence of media on suicidal behaviour has been shown for newspaper and television reports of actual suicides, film and television portrayals of suicides, and suicide in literature, especially suicide manuals." "Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it," Phillips said. He cited studies that showed that people were more likely to engage in dangerous deviant behavior, such as drug taking, if someone else had set the example first.
The Werther effect not only predicts an increase in suicide, but the majority of the suicides will take place in the same or a similar way as the one publicized. The more similar the person in the publicized suicide is to the people exposed to the information about it, the more likely the age group or demographic is to die by suicide. The increase generally happens only in areas where the suicide story was highly publicized. Upon learning of someone else's suicide, some people decide that action may be appropriate for them as well, especially if the publicized suicide was of someone in a situation similar to their own.
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. People may see suicide as a glamorous ending, with the victim getting attention, sympathy, and concern that they never got in life. A second possible factor is that vulnerable youth may feel, "If they couldn't cut it, neither can I". Increased rate of suicides has been shown to occur up to ten days after a television report. Studies in Japan and Germany have replicated findings of an imitative effect. Etzersdorfer et al. in an Austrian study showed a strong correlation between the number of papers distributed in various areas and the number of subsequent firearm suicides in each area after a related media report. Higher rates of copycat suicides have been found in those with similarities in race, age, and gender to the victim in the original report.
Stack analyzed the results from 42 studies and found that those measuring the effect of a celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies that did not. Studies based on a real as opposed to a fictional story were 4.03 times more likely to uncover a copycat effect and research based on televised stories was 82% less likely to report a copycat effect than research based on newspapers. Other scholars have been less certain about whether copycat suicides truly happen or are selectively hyped. For instance, fears of a suicide wave following the suicide of Kurt Cobain never materialized in an actual increase in suicides. Coverage of Cobain's suicide in the local Seattle area focused largely on treatment for mental health issues, suicide prevention and the suffering Cobain's death caused to his family. Perhaps as a result, the local suicide rate actually declined in the following months.
Furthermore, there is evidence for an indirect Werther effect, i.e. the perception that suicidal media content influences others which, in turn, can concurrently or additionally influence one person's own future thoughts and behaviors. Similarly the researcher Gerard Sullivan has critiqued research on copycat suicides, suggesting that data analyses have been selective and misleading and that the evidence for copycat suicides are much less consistent than suggested by some researchers.
Studies show a high incidence of psychiatric disorders in suicide victims at the time of their death with the total figure ranging from 87.3% to 98%, with mood disorders and substance abuse being the two most common.
Social proof model
An alternate model to explain copycat suicide, called "social proof" by Cialdini, 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. To deal with this problem, Alex Mesoudi of Queen Mary University of London, developed a computer model of a community of 1000 people, to examine how copycat suicides occur. These were divided into 100 groups of 10, in a model designed to represent different levels of social organization, such as schools or hospitals within a town or state. Mesoudi then circulated the simulation through 100 generations. He found the simulated people acted just as sociologists' theory predicted. They were more likely to die by suicide in clusters, either because they had learned this trait from their friends, or because suicidal people are more likely to be like one another.
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) 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." University of London psychologist Alex Mesoudi recommends that reporters follow the sort of guidelines the World Health Organization and others endorse for coverage of any suicide: use extreme restraint in covering these deaths—keep the word "suicide" out of the headline, don't romanticize the death, and limit the number of stories. Photography, pictures, visual images or film depicting such cases should not be made public" (Turkey). While many countries do not have national codes, media outlets still often have in-house guidelines along similar lines. In the United States, there are no industry-wide standards. A survey of in-house 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 News 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." Guidelines on the reporting of suicides in Ireland were introduced recently with attempt to remove any positive connotations the act might have (e.g. using the term "completed" rather than "successful" when describing a suicide attempt which resulted in a death).
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's journalistic standards and practices manual discourages the reporting of the details of suicide.
Australia is one of the few countries where there is a concerted effort to teach journalism students about this subject. The Mindframe national media initiative 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 and related issues.
Headline is Ireland's media monitoring programme for suicide and mental health issues, set up by Shine and the Health Service Executives National Office for Suicide Prevention as part of 'Reach Out: National Strategy for action on Suicide Prevention.' Headline works with media professionals and students to find ways to collaborate to ensure that suicide, mental health and mental illness are responsibly covered in the media and provides information on reporting on mental health and suicidal behavior, literature and daily analysis of news stories. Headline also serves as a vehicle for the public to become involved in helping to monitor the Irish media on issues relating to mental health and suicide.
The Papageno effect is the effect that mass media can have by presenting non-suicide alternatives to crises. It is named after a lovelorn character, Papageno, from the 18th-century opera The Magic Flute; he was contemplating suicide until other characters showed him a different way to resolve his problems.
If a novel or news can induce self-harm, then it must be assumed that those narratives might have a positive effect on prevention. There is more research into the damage done by "irresponsible media reports" than into the protective effects of positive stories, but when newspapers refuse to publicize suicide events or change the way that they provide information about suicide events, the risk of copycat suicides declines.
In 2018, Northwestern University interviewed 5,000 adolescents and parents in the US, UK, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand to explore how they related to 13 Reasons Why, a controversial TV show produced by Netflix. The research suggested that watching the show prompted conversations between teens and parents about bullying, suicide and mental health. Most importantly, the show led adolescents to show more empathy for their peers. The study also reported that parents and adolescents were interested in finding more information on suicide prevention.
It has been argued that appropriate portrayals of suicide, showing negative consequences or alternative consequences, might have a preventive effect and empower vulnerable audience in encouraging help-seeking and normalizing mental health problems.
A striking example occurred in Vienna, Austria where the media reporting increased dramatically the number of copycat suicides. Reduction began when a working group of the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention developed media guidelines and initiated discussions with the media which culminated with an agreement to abstain from reporting on cases of suicide. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have triggered suicide clusters include Ruan Lingyu, the Japanese musicians Yukiko Okada and hide, the South Korean actress Choi Jin-Sil, whose suicide caused suicide rates to rise by 162.3% and Marilyn Monroe, whose death was followed by an increase of 200 more suicides than average for that August month.
Another famous case is the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, an act that was a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and sparked the Arab Spring, including several men who emulated Bouazizi's act.
A 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found the online series 13 Reasons Why which chronicled a fictional teen's suicide was associated with an increase in suicide related Internet searches, including a 26% increase in searches for "how to commit suicide", an 18% increase for "commit suicide" and 9% increase for "how to kill yourself." On May 29, 2019, research published in JAMA Psychiatry outlined an association of increased suicides in 10- to 19-year-olds in the United States in the 3 months following the release of 13 Reasons Why, consistent with a media contagion of suicide in the show. However, some media scholar studies proved that viewing 13 Reasons Why was not associated with suicidal ideation but actually with reduced depressive symptoms.
The cause-and-effect relationship between media and suicide is not simple to prove. Prof. Sonia Livingstone emphasized the claim of causality in media-effect cannot be considered conclusive because of different methodological approaches and disciplinary perspective. Even if it is accepted that media can have an effect on suicidal ideation, it is not a sufficient condition to drive people to commit suicide, the effects that media can have on suicidal behaviour are certainly less important than individual psychological and social risk factors. However, reporters and media content producers remain accountable to apply ethical guidelines to prevent suicide and help vulnerable people.
- Halgin, Richard P.; Susan Whitbourne (January 2006). Abnormal Psychology with MindMap II CD-ROM and PowerWeb. McGraw-Hill. p. 62. ISBN 0-07-322872-9.
- Schmidtke A, Häfner H (1988). "The Werther effect after television films: new evidence for an old hypothesis". Psychol. Med. 18 (3): 665–76. doi:10.1017/s0033291700008345. PMID 3263660.
- Golman, D (1987-03-18). "Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides among Youths". The New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
- Mesoudi, A (2009). "The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide". PLOS ONE. 4 (9): e7252. Bibcode:2009PLoSO...4.7252M. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007252. PMC 2748702. PMID 19789643.
- Meyers, David G. (2009). Social Psychology (10th Ed). New York: McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-337066-8.
- "Preventing suicide: A report for media professionals" (PDF). World Health Organization. 2000. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- De Wyze, Jeannette (2005-03-31). "Why Do They Die?". San Diego Reader. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
- Sisask, Merike; Värnik, Airi (2017-01-04). "Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 9 (1): 123–38. doi:10.3390/ijerph9010123. ISSN 1661-7827. PMC 3315075. PMID 22470283.
- Sanger-Katz, Margot (August 13, 2014). "The Science Behind Suicide Contagion". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
- Hawton, Keith; Williams, Kathryn (2002). "Influences Of The Media On Suicide: Researchers, Policy Makers, And Media Personnel Need To Collaborate On Guidelines". BMJ: British Medical Journal. 325 (7377): 1374–75. doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7377.1374. JSTOR 25453137. PMC 1124845. PMID 12480830.
- Mulvihill, G (2010). "Experts Fear Copycat Suicides After Bullying Cases. Experts fear a spate of copycat suicides after bullying cases grab national headlines". ABC News. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
- Phillips, David P. (May 1982). "The Impact of Fictional Television Stories on U.S. Adult Fatalities: New Evidence on the Effect of the Mass Media on Violence". The American Journal of Sociology. 87 (6): 1340–59. doi:10.1086/227596. PMID 7149089. S2CID 10722780.
- Stack S (1996). "The effect of the media on suicide: evidence from Japan, 1955–1985". Suicide Life Threat Behav. 26 (2): 132–42. PMID 8840417.
- Jonas K (1992). "Modelling and suicide: a test of the Werther effect". Br J Soc Psychol. 31 (4): 295–306. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.1992.tb00974.x. PMID 1472984.
- Etzersdorfer E, Voracek M, Sonneck G (2004). "A dose-response relationship between imitational suicides and newspaper distribution". Arch Suicide Res. 8 (2): 137–45. doi:10.1080/13811110490270985. PMID 16006399. S2CID 37040005.
- Stack S (2002). "Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide". Inj. Prev. 8 Suppl 4 (90004): IV30–2. doi:10.1136/ip.8.suppl_4.iv30. PMC 1765497. PMID 12460954.
- Jobes D.; Berman A.; O'Carroll P.; Eastgard S. (1996). "The Kurt Cobain suicide crisis: Perspectives from research, public health and the news media". Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 26 (3): 260–71. PMID 8897665.
- Scherr, S.; Reinemann, C. (2011). "Belief in a Werther effect. Third-Person effects in the perceptions of suicide risk for others and the moderating role of depression". Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 41 (6): 624–34. doi:10.1111/j.1943-278X.2011.00059.x. PMID 22050656.
- Sullivan, G. (2007). Should Suicide Be Reported in the Media? A Critique of Research. Remember me: Constructing immortality—Beliefs on immortality, life and death (pp. 149–58). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
- Arsenault-Lapierre G, Kim C, Turecki G (2004). "Psychiatric diagnoses in 3275 suicides: a meta-analysis". BMC Psychiatry. 4: 37. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-4-37. PMC 534107. PMID 15527502.
- Bertolote JM, Fleischmann A, De Leo D, Wasserman D (2004). "Psychiatric diagnoses and suicide: revisiting the evidence". Crisis. 25 (4): 147–55. doi:10.1027/0227-5910.25.4.147. PMID 15580849.
- Robert B. Cialdini (1993). Influence: the psychology of persuasion. New York: Morrow. p. 336. ISBN 0-688-12816-5.
- Mesoudi, Alex (2009-09-30). Jones, James Holland (ed.). "The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide". PLOS ONE. 4 (9): e7252. Bibcode:2009PLoSO...4.7252M. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007252. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 2748702. PMID 19789643.
- Hamzelou, J (2009). "Copycat suicides fuelled by media reports". Newscientist. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
- Franklin, D (2009). "Copycat Suicides: What's The Media's Role?". NPR. Retrieved August 1, 2015.
- Norris, Bill; Mike Jempson; Lesley Bygrave (September 2001). "Covering suicide worldwide: media responsibilities" (PDF). The MediaWise Trust. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-06-14. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- "Suicide". Journalistic standards and practices. CBC/Radio-Canada. Retrieved 2014-02-05.
- "Reporting Suicide: Guidance for journalists". The MediaWise Trust, Spanish, French. Archived from the original on 2005-03-11. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- "Suicide". 5 March 2011.
- Niederkrotenthaler, Thomas; Voracek, Martin; Herberth, Arno; Till, Benedikt; Strauss, Markus; Etzersdorfer, Elmar; Eisenwort, Brigitte; Sonneck, Gernot (2010). "Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects". British Journal of Psychiatry. 197 (3): 234–43. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.109.074633. ISSN 0007-1250. PMID 20807970.
- "Multinational survey: How teens, parents respond to Netflix show '13 Reasons Why'". news.northwestern.edu. Retrieved 2020-07-22.
- Scalvini, Marco (2020-06-18). "13 Reasons Why : can a TV show about suicide be 'dangerous'? What are the moral obligations of a producer?". Media, Culture & Society. 42 (7–8): 1564–74. doi:10.1177/0163443720932502. ISSN 0163-4437.
- Etzersdorfer, Elmar; Sonneck, Gernot (1998). "Preventing suicide by influencing mass-media reporting. The Viennese experience 1980–1996". Archives of Suicide Research. 4 (1): 67–74. doi:10.1080/13811119808258290. ISSN 1381-1118.
- Kim, Jae-Hyun; Park, Eun-Cheol; Nam, Jung-Mo; Park, SoHee; Cho, Jaelim; Kim, Sun-Jung; Choi, Jae-Woo; Cho, Eun (2013-12-26). "The Werther Effect of Two Celebrity Suicides: an Entertainer and a Politician". PLOS ONE. 8 (12): e84876. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...884876K. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084876. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 3873447. PMID 24386428.
- Ayers, John W.; Althouse, Benjamin M.; Leas, Eric C.; Dredze, Mark; Allem, Jon-Patrick (1 October 2017). "Internet Searches for Suicide Following the Release of 13 Reasons Why". JAMA Internal Medicine. 177 (10): 1527–29. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.3333. PMC 5820689. PMID 28759671.
- Niederkrotenthaler, Thomas; Stack, Steven; Till, Benedikt; Sinyor, Mark; Pirkis, Jane; Garcia, David; Rockett, Ian R. H.; Tran, Ulrich S. (September 1, 2019). "Association of Increased Youth Suicides in the United States With the Release of 13 Reasons Why". JAMA Psychiatry. 76 (9): 933–940. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0922. PMC 6547137. PMID 31141094.
- Ferguson, Christopher J. (2020-05-05). "One Less Reason Why: Viewing of Suicide-Themed Fictional Media is Associated with Lower Depressive Symptoms in Youth". Mass Communication and Society. 24: 85–105. doi:10.1080/15205436.2020.1756335. ISSN 1520-5436. S2CID 218940399.
- Livingstone, Sonia (1996), Curran, James; Gurevitch, Michael (eds.), "On the continuing problems of media effects research", Mass Media and Society, London, UK: Edward Arnold, pp. 305–24, ISBN 978-0-340-61418-1, retrieved 2020-07-22
- Bridge, Jeffrey A.; Goldstein, Tina R.; Brent, David A. (2006). "Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 47 (3–4): 372–94. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01615.x. ISSN 0021-9630. PMID 16492264.
- The Copycat Effect (ISBN 0-7434-8223-9)
- Suicide Clusters (ISBN 0-571-12991-9)
- International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) – Special Interest Group – Clusters and Contagion in Suicidal Behaviour (Aim of the IASP Special Interest Group (SIG) on Clusters and Contagion in Suicidal Behaviour is to bring together interested people in research, prevention and policy, who can share information and expertise in clusters and contagion effects in suicidal behaviour worldwide).
- Copycat Effect (Article that discusses the how the sensational coverage of violent events tends to provoke similar events and the journalistic ethics involved).
- Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop – Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- 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 (2003). "Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide". Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 57 (4): 238–40. doi:10.1136/jech.57.4.238. PMC 1732435. PMID 12646535.
- 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