Health. “Suicidal contagion”: what is the Werther effect?

Health. “Suicidal contagion”: what is the Werther effect?
Health. “Suicidal contagion”: what is the Werther effect?

Marilyn Monroe’s suicide was reportedly followed by a 12% increase in the suicide rate in the United States in the month following her death. Like that of actor Robin Williams… the examples are numerous. Can one suicide lead to others?

Eloise Bajou : Indeed. Inappropriate media coverage of celebrity suicide can have a significant impact on the number of suicides in the general population. This is the Werther effect.

The media’s coverage of suicide has received considerable suicide prevention research attention over the past five decades. Thus, the latest meta-analyses and a literature review revealed that media reporting on celebrity suicides was associated with a 13% increase in suicides in the two months following media coverage.

When the method of suicide used by the celebrity was reported, there was an associated 30% increase in deaths by the same method. The mention of the lethal means remains the element with the most “Werther effect” or “suicidal contagion effect”.

Are certain people more at risk?

The way suicide is treated in the media can induce an effect of imitation and reproduction of the suicidal gesture among vulnerable people. This phenomenon – it is a hypothesis resulting from the clinic – would mainly concern individuals in suicidal crisis who come into contact with content (written, videos) that is not very careful.

Research has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue recommendations for journalists to avoid this Werther effect. But tributes from personalities would do well to draw inspiration from it.

Applying these recommendations not only makes it possible to provide reliable information – imprecise or biased content in clinical terms often conveys prejudice, thus aggravating risks – but also to convey relevant resources for vulnerable people and to improve public knowledge of psychiatric pathologies and the healthcare system.

Between a young singer and an 88-year-old artist, are the vulnerable populations ultimately very distinct?

The underlying mechanism is that of identification. People identify with the deceased person according to two mechanisms: vertical identification, which concerns the celebrities we aspire to resemble, and horizontal identification, which concerns peers, people who resemble us.

This fragility is particularly marked during adolescence. For example, the suicide of a YouTuber of the same age group or a singer can have a significant impact. On the other hand, the suicide of an 88-year-old artist leads to less identification. However, the effect of vertical identification remains for those who admire his works.

We must not forget that those over 75 represent the population most at risk of suicide: 33.3/100,000 inhabitants compared to 15.4 for 25-54 year olds and 18.1 for 55-74 year olds. This is for several reasons, including the taboo surrounding suicide and the fact that the psychological suffering of elderly people is often minimized and trivialized.

What to keep silent, what to say and how, in articles, public tributes, etc.? ?

First of all, don’t be afraid to talk about suicide. The longer the taboo persists, the more the myth takes root.

Precisely, the mode of operation and anything which could suggest a fatality or a romanticization of the suicidal gesture must be avoided. For example, if an individual recently lost his wife, this may cause great suffering, but this suffering could have found an outcome other than suicide.

However, we often read in major national newspapers and in the tweets of personalities tributes which seem to romanticize or inevitably link these events to suicide. We obviously cannot deny the context, but it is essential not to romanticize the act, implying that this situation is desirable.

What must be avoided at all costs is trivialization, romanticization, the attribution of a single causality and the description of the modus operandi. Words have weight.”

What are the other mechanisms of suicidal contagion?

In addition to the media treatment of suicide, there are other contagion mechanisms, such as hotspots (public places, natural elements, buildings such as bridges, etc.), identified by the population as places where lethality is significant. A third type of contagion mechanism concerns suicides in small groups or communities, such as those which had been widely publicized at France Telecom, the police, hospitals and businesses.

It is all these mechanisms that Papageno, an action research program supported by the Hauts-de-France psychiatry research federation and hosted by the Lille University Hospital, is interested in. It is financed by the General Directorate of Health (DGS) and certain regional health agencies (ARS).

If you have suicidal thoughts, call 31 14.

To find out more, the Papageno program website: here.

How to choose the right words, responsible language to talk about a known person, a friend, a relative who has ended their life.

Source : According to the interview with Éloïse Bajou, from the Papageno institutional program; Phillips, D.P. (1974). The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect. American Sociological Review, 39(3), 340–354. https://doi.org/10.2307/2094294; Niederkrotenthaler T, Braun M, Pirkis J, Till B, Stack S, Sinyor M, Tran US, Voracek M, Cheng Q, Arendt F, Scherr S, Yip PSF, Spittal MJ. Association between suicide reporting in the media and suicide: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2020 Mar 18;368:m575. doi:10.1136/bmj.m575. PMID: 32188637; PMCID: PMC7190013; Epidemiological data on deaths by suicide in France in 2017 Grégoire Rey (Inserm-CépiDc).

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