Most of us have probably heard of the word ‘copycat’ for the first time at school or on the playground. This youthful term has been linked to the growing problem of ‘suicide’, causing many to reconsider whether copycat suicides are a myth or reality.
Copycat suicide, also known as the Werther effect, is defined as an imitative suicidal behavior that occurs after exposure to another suicide. Essentially, a person is said to attempt copycat suicide if they are provoked by media reports of the same method of suicide as a celebrity. Believe it or not, celebrity suicides are a lot more contagious than you think:
- Marilyn Monroe’s death: There was a 12% rise in suicides during the month after her death
- Robin William’s death: In the four months after the actor took his own life, there was a 10% increase in suicides in the U.S.
- ’13 Reasons Why’: This Netflix series was associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the months following the show’s release
Teenagers are vulnerable. They focus on actions and behaviours of other teens, especially suicide. But the most prevalent risk factor still remains the presence of mental health problems, most commonly related to depression, anxiety and alcohol/drug abuse.
Media coverage plays a critical role in copycat suicides. When suicides get glorified attention, it is more likely to trigger other suicides, creating more opportunities for the Werther effect to occur. Although it may seem ironic, there are ways for the media to cover copycat suicides in ways that can actually help mitigate the risk of more attempted suicides. Reporting on factors that led up to suicide, emphasizing on the fact that most have mental health problems, rather than discussing the method, can greatly contribute to decrease Werther’s effect.
Many countries have their own codes when dealing with how journalists can report suicides. In the U.K., suicides are a matter of public record as the death may affect individuals and even communities. Journalists are granted the right to report on a person’s death even if family members request it to stay private. In cases that involve personal grief or shock, language and inquiries must be approached with sympathy without mocking.
Irresponsible media has the power to influence suicidal behaviours. However, more effective media can protect and highlight solutions and open doors to healthy conversations on suicide without harming others.
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