The Werther Effect is triggered by media coverage. But can media be the solution as well as the problem?
It is all over, Charlotte: I am resolved to die! I make this declaration deliberately and coolly, without any romantic passion, on this morning of the day when I am to see you for the last time.
At the moment you read these lines, O best of women, the cold grave will hold the inanimate remains of that restless and unhappy being who, in the last moments of his existence, knew no pleasure so great as that of conversing with you!
I have passed a dreadful night or rather, let me say, a propitious one; for it has given me resolution, it has fixed my purpose.
I am resolved to die.
At least a few might have heard of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — or, more specifically, his popular novel Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). If you haven’t read this classic fiction, be warned of spoilers ahead.
Here’s the brief version: Werther is a sensitive and passionate artist who falls in love with the peasant girl Charlotte. But Charlotte is already engaged to another man, a certain Albert who is eleven years older than she. This love triangle obviously can’t sustain: one of them must go. But Werther is a gentle man, and can’t bring himself to kill or even think of murder. There is, it seems, only one option.
He shoots himself in his head. But it takes twelve more hours for him to pass away.
I know, this single-paragraph summary of a book makes it look like any other cliché Bollywood movie. But the impact it had on young readers of the time was beyond anybody’s expectations. Goethe soon became an international literary hero, and Werther a popular character among the youth — so much so that a lot of them started wearing Werther’s signature yellow pants and blue jackets.
But another seemingly unrelated trend was also brought to the public notice: young people, for one reason or another, started turning to suicide to escape the burdens of everyday life.
The suicide rate in the country was rising like never before.
The whole concept of ‘copycat suicide’ might sound strange at first. Why would anyone kill themselves just because someone else did it first? And, how could such a subjective and private decision be so contagious?
Yet, that is exactly what was happening. People would hear of someone committing suicide locally, or hear about it in the news, and then go on to try it themselves. ‘Copycat suicide’ is the laymen’s term, but it was the sociologist David Philips who coined the technical phrase: the ‘Werther effect’.
It’s not just an ‘it happened then’ phenomenon either. It has happened again and again, in different places. Ruan Lingyu, the actress from China. Japanese musician Yukiko Okada. Marilyn Monroe, the American actress — whose death was followed by 200 suicides more than average for the month of August. Note that these weren’t superfans killing themselves in grief (though that happens too). It was simply that the buzz of suicide was in the air, so more people saw it as an option to go for.
More recently, the suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has created a ripple effect, raising the suicide rate in India. The exact numbers aren’t available as of yet, but like with everything else it is to be expected that 2020 would surprise us.
Copycat suicides are a fascinating area of research, and consequently, loads of academic literature on the subject. I’ve tried going through some of these research papers and articles to find out what it is that produces the phenomenon.
Eighteen year old Devin Moore had no criminal history, when he was picked up by the police one day on suspicion of stealing a car. He was very cooperative when they took him to the station. And then, something snapped.
Moore grabbed Officer Arnold Strickland’s .40-calibre rifle and shot the policeman in the head. The other two officers rushed in to help, and they were gunned down too. Moore ran out, grabbing a set of car keys along the way, jumped into a police car, and took off.
Devin Moore, it turned out, was a long-time player of the infamous Grand Theft Auto or GTA, a series of violent action-adventure videogames. One of the scenarios there is similar to what Moore did: enter a police precinct, steal a uniform, free a convict from jail, shoot the police to escape, and get away in a squad car. “Life is a video game,” Moore said later when he was caught. “Everybody’s got to die sometime.”
Many studies have banned GTA because of the real-life violence it seems to encourage. After all, if people spend so much of their time doing violent acts in a game, there’s a low threshold to doing it in real life as well.
Of course, media doesn’t only influence violence. The brand Fair & Lovely has long come under fire for implying that only lighter-skinned people can be ‘lovely’. Decades of hearing that brand name and seeing those ads makes people associate ‘lovely’ with ‘fair’ — something that campaigns like ‘Dark is Beautiful’ are trying to change.
A 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found the online series 13 Reasons Why, which chronicled a fictional teen’s suicide, was associated with an increase in suicide-related internet searches — including a 26% increase for searches ‘how to commit suicide’, an 18% increase for ‘commit suicide’ and an 18% increase for ‘how to kill yourself’. This is yet another example of glamorisation of suicide, even though I believe that wasn’t the intention. (Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the show).
Why would simply hearing something change our entire perception? In a way, it makes sense. As humans, we’re more likely to do things when we see or hear of other people doing them — whether it’s tending a garden, trying out a new product, or something more, well, extreme. The more people we see doing it, the more likely we are to follow suit.
Perhaps these are just more dramatic examples of the same thing?
After immersing myself in a couple of research papers and going through the news articles related to celebrity suicides, I believe there are two major reasons why this whole ‘copycat suicide’ thing exists.
The first reason is that suicides are often glamorised in media and fictions. Just go through the long list of celebrity suicides: you’ll see most of them designated as heroic acts.
In reality, suicides were reflections of a mentally unhealthy environment, or the corrupt nature of their businesses, or a deep-rooted guilt or something else that has nothing to do with heroism. But when these stories are presented in the mainstream media, they get blown out of proportion, with the suicide victim as the central character. Youngsters end up thinking that suicide, with all its attention and news value, is not a bad option to go for.
There might not be a lot of logic in this argument. But people who are highly suggestible might not give it a second thought before jumping into the wagon of popularity.
People who fall prey to the Werther effect often have characteristics in common: high suggestibility, low self-esteem, for instance. Most victims also lack adequate social support and parental guidance. So, when they get to know that their favourite actor or politician or athlete has committed suicide, they feel like they can be the centre of attention, too, by following the same path.
A second reason for copycat suicides could be that people tend to become hopeless, when even their heroes can’t cope with challenges ahead. When a celebrity dies, it is quite common to hear that ‘If even they can’t get by with all their money and fame, then what about us?’.
The public always keeps their heroes on a pedestal — high above on the horizon — and believe they are living the grandest of lives. So when the people see these heroes falling down from their pedestals, they assume that if even such great people can’t find happiness in life, there is absolutely no point in trying.
And then, they give up.
The so-called Werther effect is more prevalent among youngsters than among the elderly or the children. As a matter of fact, at least 5% of youth suicides may be influenced by contagion. This is an alarming number, considering that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youngsters worldwide.
The good news is that it can be prevented. People often commit suicide because they see no other option. The answer is, of course, to tell people about alternatives.
And that’s where media coverage comes in again — for good, this time.
In 1994, young singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home, with a gunshot wound in his head and suicide note next to him. There are some who whisper that it was not actually suicide — but be that as it may, the point is, his death didn’t trigger a wave of copycat suicides.
Coverage of Cobain’s suicide, in his local area of Seattle, focused largely on treatment for mental health issues. Newspapers and television talked about suicide prevention in general, and the suffering Cobain’s death caused to his family. Perhaps as a result, the local suicide rate actually went down in the following months.
What if copycat suicides are more the result of how the originals are reported, rather than of the suicides themselves?
With the social media and hero worship as strong as ever, and frequent deaths of celebrities from all walks of life, it is only fair to assume that a chain reaction is just around the corner.
The only way to prevent another destructive pandemic is to prepare beforehand and spread awareness among the youth. Let the Werthers of today know that they are not alone, and that there is always hope.
If we play it right, copycat non-suicides can be a thing, too.