Werther effect: what it is and how it relates to chain suicides

Suicide is one of the most common forms of death and ranks first among the unnatural forms. Committing suicide is an act in which the person themselves actively seeks their own destruction, a search usually derived from deep mental and / or physical suffering.

But this act not only has an effect on the person who commits suicide but, in a similar way to other phenomena, can generate a call effect which leads other vulnerable people to try to commit the same act. This is called the Werther effect.

    The Werther effect: what is it?

    This is called the Werther effect of this phenomenon whereby the observation or notification of the suicide of one person causes another to try to imitate that death. Also known as the copy effect, it is a problem that has become epidemic in some cases, Leading to mass suicides.

    We are dealing with imitation behavior that generally occurs in a population at risk who sees suicide as a way to free themselves from suffering and which, when one or more cases are observed with similar characteristics to theirs, comes thinking about committing suicide. It is possible that the figure of suicide or the act of suicide itself is idealized, or that the information available on the case in question suggests this as a course of action.

    In general, the Werther effect can occur in the face of any news of suicide, but it is much more evident when the death in question is that of a person particularly referable or admired by a large number of people. Clear examples are the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain. However, in the latter case the number of deaths was lower than expected, it is assumed that probably by the difficulty involved in the method used by the singer.

    On a more private level, suicide attempts and / or suicides committed by relatives and especially if they were a reference figure run the risk for other subjects of the environment to come to think or even to imitate the act of suicide. This is why it is more than advisable to work on this risk directly with the relatives of people who have committed psychological suicide.

    As for the population which can be most easily affected by this effect, it has been observed that as a general rule the younger population tends to be more influential, Especially if they are at risk of social exclusion. Another aspect that has been observed of great importance is the treatment given to information: if suicide is seen and reflected as something shocking and sensationalist, generating deep emotions, it can provoke other people, they also seek to generate these feelings in others through these means.

    It has also been observed that suicides by strange but relatively simple means to carry out tend to be more striking and imitated. And it is that imitation generally occurs not only in the fact of committing suicide but also in the methodology used. Likewise, the level of detail and information concerning the case in question and the explanation of the methods used seem to facilitate further attempts at imitation by other people.

      Origin of the term and relation to suicide

      The Werther Effect takes its name from Goethe’s novel The Pain of Young Werther, in which the protagonist (Werther) ends his own life after being in love with Lotte for many years, a married woman who cannot match her. The publication of this novel in 1774 was a great commercial success, being the equivalent of a current bestseller, but authorities observed that many young people similarly committed suicide to the protagonist soon after. .

      In 1974, the sociologist David Phillips conducted a study in which he observed that the number of suicides has increased with the publication of news related to this topic, Continuing to baptize this effect as the Werther effect.

      The Papageno effect

      Throughout this article, we have seen how the processing of information about a committed suicide can, in fact, lead to the generation of an imitation effect in other people. Fortunately, however, we can also find an effect that we could consider as the opposite: the Papageno effect,

      This effect occurs when the information transmitted is not so much focused on the fact of suicide as on the existence of alternatives. With Papageno effect, we refer to that situation in which exposure to information concerns people who have made progress despite unfavorable situations similar to those in which the person at risk may live, or even in cases of non-fatal suicide attempts in which the subject has found other means to end their suffering without resorting to self-inflicted death.

      This generates the visualization of alternatives to suicide and examples of overcoming that can persuade those at risk to try to follow the same path. The name of the effect comes from a famous character from The Magic Flute, who confesses to a suicide attempt when three spirits make him think of alternatives.

      Final consideration: the importance of working in prevention

      All of the above should make us see the great importance of working in suicide prevention in a wide variety of fields. We must ensure that suicide is not seen as a desirable or shocking alternative but as something to be avoided, and we must invest in prevention in schools and in the media, based on the observation of different ways of dealing with difficulties.

      Regarding the informative or journalistic level, it is necessary to underline the need to give as little information as possible about the fact in question but without making this action a simple fact, to avoid morbid elements and sensationalist treatment.

      Although it may seem obvious, suicide should never be idealized or presented as something romantic or as a means to achieve goals. It might also be useful to present in the same news help mechanisms or possible alternatives of action to people in the same situation, or to witnesses of cases where alternatives have been found in suicide.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Álvarez Torres, SM (2012). Werther Effect: a proposal for intervention at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Communication. Northern Mental Health, 42: 48-55.
      • Herrera, R .; Ures, MB and Martínez, JJ (2015). The treatment of suicide in the Spanish press: Werther effect or Papageno effect? Rev. Asoc.Esp.Neuropsiq., 35 (125). 123-134.
      • Muller, G. (2011). The Werther effect – Management of information on suicide by the Spanish press in the case of Antonio Flores and its impact on recipients. Information management notebooks: 65-71.

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