It’s been labeled the “Werther Effect,” after a rash of suicides among young European men followed the 1774 publication of the romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which the title character takes his own life. These days it’s also known as “suicide contagion,” and a new report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a New York-based nonprofit group, has compiled for journalists a set of guidelines designed to minimize the effects of suicide reporting on so-called “copycat” suicides.
The report is part of a multi-pronged effort undertaken by the federal government to actively combat the national rise in suicide rates. Last May, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher announced the ambitious plan, spearheaded by AFSP, that identifies education, intervention and research as the primary tools of the campaign. This unprecedented national push to prevent suicide was spurred by the latest figures on self-inflicted deaths, numbers which tell a chilling story. According to the Center for Mental Health Services (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), more than 30,000 Americans die each year by suicide, which ranks as the nation’s eighth-leading cause of death. Just as startling, the incidence of suicide among adolescents and young adults nearly tripled between 1952 and 1995.
The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention lays out 11 specific goals and provides a blueprint for the actions needed to attain those goals, including education (reducing the stigma surrounding suicide and increase citizen access to mental health services), intervention (improving recognition of at-risk behavior and promoting more effective clinical practices) and research (encouraging more studies on suicide.
Included in the recommendations is an effort to inform the media of their unique role in encouraging or perpetuating the factors that cause imitative or “copycat” suicides, and to instruct news outlets how to best minimize those factors in their reporting. To that end, AFSP, along with the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has issued a set of reporting guidelines based on international studies of “copycat” suicide behavior.
The most prominent of the studies is one performed in Vienna during the latter half of the 1980s. Although suicides had been reported on the subway system from the time it opened in Vienna in 1978, the number of deaths remained low until 1984, when a significant spike in subway-suicides—accompanied by increasing media attention—occurred. By mid-1987, the problem had reached near-epidemic proportions. The Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention, a group formed to study the media’s handling of the situation during its peak, issued a set of media guidelines asking for voluntary restraint among journalists in both the level of detail in their reporting and their decision to run subway-suicide stories. The result: an immediate and precipitous decline in the incidence of subway suicides back to pre-1984 levels.
The guidelines issued by the Annenberg/AFSP report, entitled “Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media,” outline several methods by which reporters can minimize the effect their stories have on suicide contagion. Citing a statistic that shows more than 90 percent of suicide victims have significant psychiatric illnesses (mood disorders and substance abuse being the most common), the report urges journalists to emphasize that fact and convey to their readers or viewers that most of the illnesses are readily treatable.
Additionally, the report says that surviving relatives and friends of a suicide victim, when given enough time to reflect, often realize later the presence of warning signs they had missed, even if their initial reaction was one of complete shock. This is a key factor in reporting on suicides, the report says, since it is important to avoid portraying suicide victims as otherwise mentally stable.
Finally, the report points out that a measured application of specific language can minimize the notion of suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others. For example, the report says it’s important to keep the word “suicide” out of the headlines of suicide stories, and graphic descriptions of the method should be avoided. Overall, suicide reporting should not describe the act as inexplicable, romantic or heroic.
Although most of the daily newspapers in western Montana have a general policy that jibes with the spirit of the report (i.e., not covering suicides unless the death involves a public figure or place, and then running the story as a smaller, local piece), the simple fact is that not many instances of suicide contagion have been documented here, so the dynamic between journalism and suicide contagion is largely unexplored. But as might be expected from a profession founded on the principles of free press, some journalists have concerns over blindly jumping in line with all the recommendations.
Bozeman Chronicle Editor Bill Wilke recalls a “so-called cluster” of teen suicides in the area some 10 years ago, when nine high-school students took their own lives over the span of several months. At the time, a concerned group of parents and school officials asked Wilke to “play down” the suicides. Although Wilke felt that reporting the deaths was crucial to keep area parents informed, he did comply to a degree.
“We kept those suicides off the front page,” he says. “We applied a different threshold for front-page news to those suicides than we would have otherwise, out of deference to the wishes of school officials.”
In October, the Chronicle ran a column in which sportswriter Tony Castleberry expressed his grief and frustration over the suicide of a childhood friend in the eastern United States. The column was moving and heartfelt, but nonetheless contained several elements that run against the media recommendations of the report, including using the word “suicide” in the headline, describing the method of the act, and expressing the act as inexplicable.
In Wilke’s eyes, however, there was nothing wrong with the column. “It was simply a person’s reaction to a friend’s death,” he says. “I would not see that as a problem for our readership. If Tony had been writing about a local kid, an athlete he had covered as a sportswriter, then I think we would be dealing with an issue that we should be more sensitive about. It’s a matter of context.”