Fwd: Werther Effect

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Date: Fri 17 Jan 2003 - 04:57:49 GMT

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    Subject: FWD [fort] Werther Effect

    The Werther Effect by Loren Coleman Copyright 2002

    The media calls it the "copycat" phenomenon, and suicidologists term it the "Werther Effect." In the 1980s, one outcome was "suicide clusters." Talking about suicide saves lives, and this is an entirely different matter. Prevention work has shown that discussing suicide in a framework of alternative modeling and protective factors does not
    "cause" suicides but prevents them. The Werther Effect, however, is another matter, and has much to do with the modeling of the methods, plus the isolation, impulsiveness, and hopelessness of the suicidal individual.

    The Werther Effect was originally coined by Dr. David P Phillips, from a 1774 novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the author of Faust) entitled The Sorrows of Young Werther. In this story, the youthful character Werther falls in love with a women who is promised to another. Always melodramatic, Werther decides that life cannot go on, that his love is lost. He then dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and shoots himself. In the following years, throughout Europe, so many young men dressed themselves as Werther and sat at a desk with an open book to shoot themselves that the book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was banned in Italy, Germany, and Denmark.

    In the 1970s, Dr. Phillips conducted formal studies suggesting that the Werther Effect was, indeed, a reality, that massive media attention and retelling of the specific details of a suicide (or, in some cases, untimely deaths) could increase the number of suicides. The 1962 suicide of Marilyn Monroe is a classic case. One hundred, ninety-seven individual suicides in the following month may have used the Hollywood star's suicide as a model for theirs. The suicide rate in the US increased by 12% for the month after the Monroe suicide publicity.

    Suicides of celebrities are the most apparent illustrations. But historically, certain other celebrity examples of "hidden suicides" also come to mind, including that of James Dean's death, originally reported by the media as a car crash, but whispered about as a suicide.
      The Werther Effect from such well-publicized deaths does appear to have some impact.

    Before internet and cable news, the significance of stories in newspapers, on the radio, and via broadcast television news could be tracked rather well. In Dr. David Phillips' study on imitation and suggestion, immediately after publicized suicides, the rate of automobile fatalities also was found to have increased (Phillips, 1979). His study showed a strong correlation between the reporting of suicide and motor vehicle accidents. The more publicity the story received, the higher the automobile fatality rate. Interestingly enough, reports of younger suicide victims were followed by younger people dying by vehicle crashes and reports of older suicide victims were followed by older people dying by vehicle crashes. The direct
    "imitation," down to the actual age of the "imitators" of the publicized suicides was there in the data.

    Phillips found the correlation between the reporting of the stories and the increase in suicide rates at that time might be a result of imitating, modeling and suggestion by the drivers. Phillips examined a two week period beginning two days prior to the publicized suicide and ending 11 days later. The researcher found that automobile fatalities increased by 31% three days after a suicide was reported in the media. The increase appeared to also have a lesser seven day mirror peak, as well.

    Phillips (1979) maintains that there are no other variables involved in the increase in suicides. He reported: "The increase in the suicide rate was not due to the effect of weekday or monthly fluctuations in motor vehicle fatalities, to holiday weekends, or to yearly linear trends, because the effects were corrected for in the selection and treatment of the control periods, with which the experimental periods are compared" (p. 1159). It is also interesting to comment that the motor vehicle fatalities are most frequent in the region where the suicide story is publicized.

    The first book dealing with the copycat phenomena, Suicide Clusters
    (1987) notes the Werther Effect in other events besides suicides. The book is dedicated to David Phillips for his groundbreaking work that has gone largely ignored by most scholars.

    During the 1990s, however, Professor Riaz Hassan, a professor of Sociology at Flinders University, Australia, confirmed the links between reporting of suicides and further suicides. Hassan replicated Phillips' studies in Australia. He took his data from two major metropolitan newspapers with a national impact, between 1981 and 1990, and identified the stories that reported suicides. He then took the daily suicide rates between 1981 and 1990, and analyzed whether or not the newspaper stories had an effect on the number of suicides in the days following.

    Hassan defined his study by the "impact" and that "was measured by the location of the newspaper story, by the size of the newspaper story and headline and by a presence or absence of photographs."

    Summarizing Hassan's findings, according to Paul Herman (1996), they
    "show that the male suicide rates increased significantly in a three day period which included the day of publication of high impact reports and the two subsequent days. The female rate did not increase but the ratio between male and female suicide showed a significant skewing in high impact periods. The findings clearly suggest some association as far as males are concerned between the publication of the suicide stories in the two metropolitan papers and the suicide rate."

    As anyone watching the media and the societal reaction understands, the suicide clusters of the 1980s were replaced by the school shootings of the 1990s, almost all conducted by suicidal male youth. The Werther Effect has merely shifted its impact as the media has shifted its focus.

    In unpublished studies and surveys I have conducted, research indicates the Werther Effect's impact and involvement may be evidenced in other media-discussed violence. For example, some school shootings situations have been followed by workplace violence, mass killings, and other dramatic suicides or accidents. Popular media writers tracking the school shootings have often missed the groupings of workplace violence or other incidents that take place three days, and in the week after the initial incident.

    Patterns still are very apparent in suicide clusters, and much can be discovered from looking at local clusters, as well as nationally publicized suicides and related events.

    As 2002 began, a dramatic event was noted by the media which serves as a vivid example. The well-publicized suicide of the 15 year old male youth (Charles J. Bishop, family name formerly Bishara) who crashed the stolen Cessna plane crash into the Bank of America building on January 6, 2002, was clearly modeled on the September 11th terrorists' suicide plane crashes. Furthermore, this Tampa plane suicide happened on a weekend in which several (17) plane crashes (with seven being Cessnas) occurred, with seven of them being fatalities. This is an unusually high number of small plane crashes. Some of these included apparent and overt suicides. Hidden suicides may have also taken place, but the data is unclear on this point.

    This Tampa incident was followed by events which appear to further illustrate the Werther Effect. Certainly, the dramatic suicide of another "CB", another Charles, a former British special forces veteran Charles Bruce, author of Freefall, when he jumped (without a parachute) to his death from another Cessna over the English countryside on January 8th, must be considered. Also, drummer Jon Lee from the Welsh rock band Feeder who completed his suicide in his Florida home, on January 7th, is worthy of noting, due to the location.

    More rigorous studies, in the future, should assist in unlocking many questions raised by the Werther Effect's relationship to suicide and related phenomena.

    Surveys and studies by Phillips, the CDC, and others, however, now calls forth that the addition of "protective factors" (hotline numbers, for example) to a news story, and the subtraction of graphic details of the methods used may actually decrease the effect of the media's impact on future suicides.

    ----- Various citations for the Werther Effect include:

    Bollen, KA. and Phillips, DP. "Suicidal Motor Vehicle Fatalities in Detroit: A Replication," American Journal of Sociology: 1981: 87.

    Brent DA, Kerr MM, Goldstein C, Bozigar J, Wartella M, Allan MJ. An outbreak of suicide and suicidal behavior in a high school. American academy of child and adolescent psychiatry 1989; 918-924.

    Coleman L. Suicide Clusters. Boston, MA: Faber & Faber, 1987.

    Etzersdorfer E, Sonneck G, Nagel-Kuess S. Newspaper reports and suicide. New England journal of medicine 1992; 327: 502 - 503.

    Gould MS, Wallenstein S, Kleinman M. Time-space clustering of teenage suicide. American journal of epidemiology 1990; 131: 71-78.

    Gould MS, Petrie K, Kleinman MH, Wallenstein S. Clustering of attempted suicide: New Zealand national data. International journal of epidemiology. 1994; 23: 1185- 1189.

    Herman, P. Reporting of Suicide. Australian Press Council News. May 1996; 8, 2: 1.

    Jobes DA, Berman AL, O¹Carroll PW, Eastgard S, Knickmeyer S. The Kurt Cobain suicide crisis: perspectives from research, public health and news media. Suicide and life-threatening behavior 1996; 26: 260-272.

    Phillips DP. The influence of suggestion on suicide: substantive and theoretical implication of the Werther effect. American Sociological Review 1974; 39: 240 - 254.

    Phillips, DP. Motor Vehicle Fatalities Increase Just After Publicized Suicide Stories. Science 24 June 1977: 196.

    Phillips, DP. Suicide, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and the Mass Media: Evidence Toward a Theory of Suggestion. American Journal of Sociology 1979: 84: 5.

    Phillips DP, Carstensen LL. Clustering of teenage suicide after television news stories about suicide. New England journal of medicine 1986; 685-689.

    Riaunet Å, Stiles TC, Rygnestad T, Bjerke T. Mass-media reports of suicide and suicide attempts, and the rate of parasuicide. I Bjerke T og Stiles TC. Suicide attempts in the Nordic countries. Trondheim: Tapir, 1991.

    Schmidtke A, Häfner H. Public attitudes towards an effect and mass media on suicide and deliberate selfharm. I RFW Diekstra. Suicide and its prevention: the role of attitude and imitation. Leiden: Brill, 1989: 311-330.

    Velting DM, Gould MS. Suicide contagion. I RW Maris, MM Silverman, SS Canetto (eds). Review of suicidology. New York: Guilford, 1997: 96-137
    ---------------------------- Loren Coleman Copyright 2002 Werther@lorencoleman.com

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