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 well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide. This is referred to as suicide contagion. They occasionally spread through a school system, through a community, or in terms of a celebrity suicide wave, nationally. This is called a suicide cluster. Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include the Japanese musicians Yukiko Okada and hide.
To prevent this type of suicide, it is customary in some countries for the media to discourage suicide reports except in special cases.
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), published in 1774. In that work the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to commit suicide. This resulted in a ban of the book 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. Copycat suicide is mostly blamed on the media.
Factors in suicide reporting
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 commit suicide. Upon learning of someone else's suicide, many people decide that action is appropriate for them as well, especially if the publicized suicide was of someone in a similar situation as them.
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. 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 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 death of Kurt Cobain never materialized in an actual increase in suicides. 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.
Many people interviewed after the suicide of a relative or friend have a tendency to simplify the issues; their grief can lead to their minimizing or ignoring significant factors. Studies show a high incidence of psychiatric disorders in suicide victims at the time of their death with the total figure ranging from 98% to 87.3% with mood disorders and substance abuse being the two most common. These are often undiagnosed or untreated and treatment can result in reductions in the suicide rate. Reports that minimize the impact of psychiatric disorders contribute to copycat suicides whereas reports that mention this factor and provide help-line contact numbers and advice for where sufferers may gain assistance can reduce suicides.
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.
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. Photography, pictures, visual images or film depicting such cases should not be made public" (Turkey) Many countries do not have national codes but do have in-house guidelines along similar lines. In the US there are no industrywide standards and a survey of inhouse 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 which 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).
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 related issues.
- Epidemiology of suicide
- Herd behavior
- Badfinger A band of which 2 members committed suicide by hanging.
- Heathers, a 1989 black comedy film in which the ostensible suicides of popular high school students spur copycat attempts.
- Suicide Club (film), a 2002 Japanese horror film which revolves largely around a string of nationwide copycat suicides.
- The Werther effect after television films: new evidence for an old hypothesis, Psychol Med. 1988 Aug;18(3):665-76.
- Halgin, Richard P.; Susan Whitbourne (January 2006). Abnormal Psychology with MindMap II CD-ROM and PowerWeb. McGraw-Hill. pp. 62. ISBN 0-07-322872-9.
- "Preventing suicide: A report for media professionals" (PDF). World Health Organization. 2000. http://www.who.int/entity/mental_health/media/en/426.pdf. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- De Wyze, Jeannette (2005-02-31). "Why Do They Die?". San Diego Reader. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2005/mar/31/why-do-they-die/. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
- 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.
- 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., Dec;31 (Pt 4):295-306. 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. PMID 16006399
- Schmidtke A, Häfner H. (1988) The Werther effect after television films: new evidence for an old hypothesis. Psychol Med., Aug;18(3):665-76. PMID 3263660
- Stack S (2002). "Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide". Inj. Prev. 8 Suppl 4: IV30–2. 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), 260-271.
- 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. 149-158). New York, NY US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
- Bertolote JM, Fleischmann A, De Leo D, Wasserman D. (2004) Psychiatric diagnoses and suicide: revisiting the evidence. Crisis., 25(4):147-55. PMID 15580849
- Arsenault-Lapierre G, Kim C, Turecki G. (2004) Psychiatric diagnoses in 3275 suicides: a meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, Nov 4;4:37. PMID 15527502
- Robert B. Cialdini (1993). Influence: the psychology of persuasion. New York: Morrow. p. 336. ISBN 0-688-12816-5.
- Norris, Bill; Mike Jempson; Lesley Bygrave (September 2001). "Covering suicide worldwide: media responsibilities" (PDF). The MediaWise Trust. Archived from the original on 2007-06-14. http://web.archive.org/web/20070614001050/http://www.mediawise.org.uk/files/uploaded/Covering+Suicide+Worldwide.pdf. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- "Reporting Suicide: Guidance for journalists". The MediaWise Trust, Spanish, French. http://www.mediawise.org.uk/display_page.php?id=171. Retrieved 2007-06-09.
- Copycat Effect (Article that discusses the how the sensational coverage of violent events tends to provoke similar events and the journalistic ethics involved).
- 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, Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2003;57:238-240
- 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
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