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

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

May 26, 2024

Suicide is one of the most frequent forms of death and it is in the first position in prevalence among non-natural ones. Taking one's life is an act in which the person himself actively seeks his own destruction, a search usually derived from a deep psychic and / or physical suffering.

But this act not only has an effect on the person who commits suicide but, similarly to other phenomena, can generate a so-called effect that leads other vulnerable people to try to commit the same act. This is what is called the Werther effect .

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The Werther effect: what is it?

It receives the name of effect Werther to that phenomenon by means of which the observation or notification of the suicide of a person leads to another one to try to imitate said death. Also known as copycat effect, it is about a problem that has become epidemic in some cases , leading to mass suicides.

We are faced with a behavior of imitation that usually occurs in at-risk population that sees suicide as a way to get rid of suffering and that when observing one or several cases with characteristics similar to their own, they may think of taking their own lives. It is possible that the figure of the suicide or the act of suicide itself is idealized, or that the available information of the case in question makes one think of this as a way of acting.

In general, the Werther effect can be given to any news of suicide, but it is much more evident when the death in question is of some person especially referring or admired for a large number of people. Clear examples were the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain . However, in the latter case the number of deaths was less than expected, it is speculated that probably because of the difficulty involved in the method used by the singer.

At a more private level, suicide attempts and / or completed suicides by close relatives and especially if they were a reference figure pose a risk for other environmental subjects to think or even imitate the suicidal act. That is why it is more than advisable to work this risk directly with the relatives of people with psychological suicide.

As regards the population that may be more easily affected by this effect, it has been observed that as a general rule the younger population tends to be more influenced , especially if they are in situations of risk of social exclusion. Also another aspect that has been observed of great importance is the treatment given to the information: if suicide is seen and reflected as something shocking and sensational, generating deep emotions, this can generate other people seek to generate such feelings also in others through said means.

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

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Origin of the term and relation to suicide

The Werther effect gets its name from the novel The sorrows of the young Werther of Goethe, in which the protagonist (Werther) ends his own life after being many years in love with Lotte, a married woman who can not reciprocate. The publication of this novel in 1774 was a great commercial success, being the equivalent of a current bestseller, but the authorities observed that many young people committed suicide in a similar way to the protagonist shortly afterwards.

In 1974 the sociologist David Phillips would conduct a study in which he observed that the number of suicides increased due to the publication of news related to this topic , going on to baptize this effect as a Werther effect.

The Papageno effect

Throughout this article we have been able to see how the treatment of information regarding an accomplished suicide can, in fact, lead to the generation of an effect of imitation in other people. However, fortunately we can also find an effect that we could consider opposite: the Papageno effect,

This effect occurs when the information that is transmitted is not so much focused on the fact of suicide but on the existence of alternatives. With Papageno effect we refer to that situation in which The exposure to information has been about people who have gone ahead despite living adverse situations similar to those that the person at risk may be living, or even cases of non-fatal suicide attempts in which the subject has found other ways to end their suffering without resorting to self-inflicting death.

This generates the visualization of alternatives to suicide and examples of overcoming that can persuade people at risk of trying to take the same path. The name of the effect comes from a famous personage of the Magic Flute, who precisely aborts an attempt of suicide when three spirits make him think of alternatives.

Final consideration: the importance of working on prevention

All of the above should make us see the great importance of working in the prevention of suicide from many different areas. It must be ensured that suicide is not seen as a desirable or impactful alternative, but rather as something to be avoided, and prevention must be invested in schools and in the media, based on the observation of different ways of facing difficulties.

With regard to information or journalistic level, it is worth noting the need to give as little information as possible about the event in question but without making this action a simple fact, to avoid morbid elements and sensationalist treatment.

While it may seem obvious, you should never idealize suicide or present it as something romantic or as a means to achieve objectives. It could also be useful to present in the same news possible mechanisms of help or alternatives of action to people in their same situation, or testimonies of cases in which alternatives to suicide have been found.

Bibliographic references:

  • Álvarez Torres, S.M. (2012). Werther effect: a proposal for intervention in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Communication. North of mental health, 42: 48-55.
  • Herrera, R .; Ures, M.B. and Martínez, J.J. (2015). The treatment of suicide in the Spanish press: Werther effect or Papageno effect? Rev.Asoc.Esp.Neuropsiq., 35 (125). 123-134.
  • Müller, G. (2011). The Werther Effect - Management of suicide information by the Spanish press in the case of Antonio Flores and its impact on the recipients. Notebooks of Information Management: 65-71.

Blue Whale - Addendum (May 2024).

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