The International Handbook of Suicide Prevention: Research, Policy and Practice

By Rory C. O’Connor; Jane Pirkis | Go to book overview

42
Media Influences on Suicidal
Thoughts and Behaviors

Jane Pirkis, Katherine Mok, Jo Robinson,
and Merete Nordentoft

This chapter considers the influence of the media on suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Until recently, the vast majority of studies in this area were concerned with traditional forms of media like newspapers and television and looked at the potential for irresponsible reporting of suicide to lead to copycat acts. Increasingly, however, the focus is expanding to include newer media. The exclusive emphasis on negative impacts has also shifted, and now there is some recognition that both traditional and newer forms of media may hold potential for suicide prevention. This chapter provides an overview of the research that has been conducted in this area to date, considering the negative and positive impacts of the depiction of suicide in traditional and newer media.


Suicide and Traditional Media

Evidence for Negative Impacts

The phenomenon whereby there is an increase in rates of suicide following the description of an individual’s suicide in traditional media is known as the Werther effect. The term, which is credited to an American suicidologist named Phillips (1974), has its origins in Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was inspired by a painful love affair in the writer’s own life. The novel’s plotline follows the fortunes of a young man called Werther who falls in love with a woman whom he cannot marry because she is above his social standing and already engaged. As a consequence, Werther takes his own life. When the book was released in Europe, a series of suicides followed, and there was strong circumstantial evidence that the book had influenced a number of individuals in their final act. Some were dressed in a similar fashion to Werther, some used a pistol to take their own lives just as Werther had done, and some were found with a copy of the book at the scene of their death. Public concern led to the book being banned in a number of European countries.

Scientific investigation into the Werther effect in the news media began in the 1970s when Phillips (1974) published his seminal study, which retrospectively compared the

The International Handbook of Suicide Prevention, Second Edition. Edited by Rory C. O’Connor and Jane Pirkis. © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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