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. Suicide clusters are caused by the social learning of suicide related behaviors, or "copycat suicides". Point clusters are clusters of suicides in both time and space, and have been linked to direct social learning from nearby individuals. Mass clusters are clusters of suicides in time but not space, and have been linked to the broadcasting of information concerning celebrity suicides via the mass media Examples of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters include Ruan Lingyu, the Japanese musicians Yukiko Okada, Miyu Uehara and hide, and Marilyn Monroe, whose death was followed by an increase of 200 more suicides than average for that August month.
Another famous case is the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, an act that was a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and sparked the Arab Spring, including several men who emulated Bouazizi's act.
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). Soon after its publication in 1774, young men began to mimic the main character by dressing in yellow pants and blue jackets. In the novel, Werther shoots himself with a pistol after he is rejected by the woman he loves, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to kill themselves in an act of hopelessness.
This resulted in the book being banned 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.
Two centuries after Goethe's novel was published, David Phillips confirmed imitative suicides as the "Werther effect." Reports in 1985 and 1989 by Phillips and his colleagues found that suicides and other accidents seem to rise after a well publicized suicide. Copycat suicide is mostly blamed on the media. "Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it," Phillips said. He cited studies that showed that people were more likely to engage in dangerous deviant behavior, such as drug taking, if someone else had set the example first.
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 die by suicide. The increase generally happens only in areas where the suicide story was highly publicized. 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. People may see suicide as a glamorous ending—with youth getting a lot of attention, lots of sympathy, lots of national concern that they never got in life. The second possible factor is that vulnerable youth may feel like, "If they couldn't cut it, neither can I". 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. Furthermore, there is evidence for an indirect Werther effect, i.e. the perception that suicidal media content influences others which, in turn, can concurrently or additionally influence one person's own future thoughts and behaviors. 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 effect 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. To deal with this problem, Alex Mesoudi of Queen Mary University, London, developed a computer model of a community of 1000 people, to examine how copycat suicides occur. These were divided into 100 groups of 10, in a model designed to represent different levels of social organization, such as schools or hospitals within a town or state. Mesoudi then circulated the simulation through 100 generations. He found the simulated people acted just as sociologists' theory predicted. They were more likely to die by suicide in clusters, either because they had learned this trait from their friends, or because suicidal people are more likely to be like one another.
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." The study's author, University of London psychologist Alex Mesoudi, recommends that reporters follow the sort of guidelines the World Health Organization and others endorse for coverage of any suicide: Use extreme restraint in covering these deaths—keep the word "suicide" out of the headline, don't romanticize the death, and limit the number of stories. Photography, pictures, visual images or film depicting such cases should not be made public" (Turkey). While many countries do not have national codes, media outlets still often have in-house guidelines along similar lines. In the United States 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 and related issues.
Headline is Ireland's media monitoring programme for suicide and mental health issues, set up by Shine and the Health Service Executives National Office for Suicide Prevention as part of 'Reach Out: National Strategy for action on Suicide Prevention.' Headline works with media professionals and students to find ways to collaborate to ensure that suicide, mental health and mental illness are responsibly covered in the media and provides information on reporting on mental health and suicidal behavior, literature and daily analysis of news stories. Headline also serves as a vehicle for the public to become involved in helping to monitor the Irish media on issues relating to mental health and suicide.
- Heathers, a 1989 black comedy film in which the murders of popular high school students disguised as suicides spur copycat suicide attempts.
- Suicide Club, a 2002 Japanese horror film which revolves largely around a string of nationwide copycat suicides.
- Tenth-season Supernatural episode "The Werther Project" features an invention called a Werther Box, which causes any who try to open it to release a magical force that propagates suicides within a short radius of the box.
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- International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) - Special Interest Group - Clusters and Contagion in Suicidal Behaviour (Aim of the IASP Special Interest Group (SIG) on Clusters and Contagion in Suicidal Behaviour is to bring together interested people in research, prevention and policy, who can share information and expertise in clusters and contagion effects in suicidal behaviour worldwide).
- Copycat Effect (Article that discusses the how the sensational coverage of violent events tends to provoke similar events and the journalistic ethics involved).
- Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop - Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media - American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
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