The Papageno Effect: Responsible Reporting of Suicide

Suicide is a worldwide issue. We ask what role the media play in our perception of the environment and how they can play a protective role in this matter.
The Papageno Effect: Responsible Reporting of Suicide
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 19 January, 2023

Have you ever wondered how many young people die from committing suicide? As a matter of fact, in the US, in 2020, the suicide rate was 14.24 percent among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Furthermore, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death.

Until recently talking about suicide was taboo. It was as if people thought that talking about it would bring bad luck. Fortunately, this is now changing. Campaigns and messages are being developed with the aim of raising awareness about this deadly problem.

Action is required now. Moreover, it’s a matter for all of us. Whether we’re relatives, friends, professionals, or politicians, we should be interested in the implementation of suicide prevention plans to help reduce current rates. They’re needed now more than ever.

“In 2020, there were an estimated 1.20 million suicide attempts.” 

-American Society for Suicide Prevention-

troubled teen
Suicide prevention is fundamental and necessary.

The role of the media

The World Health Organization (WHO), defines suicidal behavior as acts in which people inflict injuries on themselves, regardless of lethal intent or the degree of knowledge about the motive.

Some people believe that suicides are on the increase because the subject is talked about so much these days. In fact, in reality, there’s always been an intense debate about the role played by information and censorship. So, does the media promote or protect against suicide?

Research on this fact is considerable. It tends to refer to two phenomena: the Werther effect and the Papageno effect.

The Werther effect

The Werther effect takes its name from one of Goethe’s works. In his book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the protagonist, Werther, takes his own life after breaking up with his lover. When this book was published in the 18th century, it sold like hotcakes. However, suicide rates were also rising to unprecedented heights.

Therefore, the Werther effect refers to the transmission of messages about suicide that leads to suicide contagion. The most recent investigations (Santonja, 2022) suggest that the way suicide is written and spoken about up to two months afterward, has an influence. It can even increase amounts of subsequent suicides by between eight and 18 percent.

Good communication and the Papageno effect

There are different ways of communicating. This is indicated in research that supports the Papageno effect. It claims that when the media (digital portals, communication channels, radio, press, etc.) talk about suicide with truthful and quality information, it plays a protective role in respect of the individual with ideas of self-harm.

The Papageno effect was first identified in 2010 by Niederkrotenthaler. It takes its name from the protagonist of one of Mozart’s most famous operas, The Magic Flute. In this production, Papageno considers suicide but three other characters show him other ways of solving his problems, and he doesn’t go through with it.

man reading news
According to Lucía Santonja, the Werther effect is a public health problem.

Healthy media

The media, and the content they share, can be extremely powerful sources of health promotion. In fact, research demonstrates that there are various techniques that can be facilitated by the media. For instance, Lucía Santonja (2022) suggests that:

  • Data should be narrated truthfully by an expert professional when it comes to stories of those who’ve been able to successfully overcome their suicidal thoughts and ideas. In this respect, the narratives might be either real or invented.
  • The above should be implemented in various communication formats. For example, videos, articles, readings, and websites. This information must be supervised, endorsed, and supported by professionals in the field of mental health.

When these actions are carried out repeatedly over time and endorsed by experts in the field, they’re considered to be well-established, effective, and safe. This is the case for the entire general population.

Preventing suicide is everyone’s job. Communication is a vital factor in this regard. On the downside, it can produce a detrimental effect. For example, it can induce people who are in the middle of the whirlwind of wondering if they want to continue living to actually commit suicide.

Fortunately, the opposite effect also occurs. Indeed, if suicide is talked about in-depth and examples are given of those who’ve overcome really difficult moments in their lives, many people will be prevented from committing suicide. In effect, communication can save lives.

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  • Ayuso, L. S. (2023). El efecto Papageno: una revisión de alcance. Revista Española de Enfermería de Salud Mental, (17).
  • Salvador Iglesias, P. (2022). El tratamiento mediático del suicidio en los medios españoles:¿ Efecto Werther o efecto Papageno?.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.