The Werther Effect – Why Suicide Can Be Contagious

March 5, 2018

On the morning of the 7th August, 1962 the world woke up to a shocking situation. That night the body of the famous actress Marilyn Monroe had been found dead in her bathroom. The media soon confirmed that it was suicide.

In the months that followed 303 young people took their lives. The Werther effect once again hit the front pages of the papers.

In the 90s, many years after that famous case, American society experienced something similar again with the death of Kurt Cobain. Every time the media reported the suicide of a famous character, an epidemic of suicides shook the country.

But what kind of connection could exist between someone from the entertainment world and a person like you and me? Could these individuals have followed a kind of imitation process or were they simply morbid coincidences?

What is the Werther effect?

The Werther effect was the term coined by the sociologist David Phillips in 1974 to define the imitative effect of suicidal behavior. The name comes from the novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, by the German writer Wolfgang von Goethe. In this book, the protagonist ends up committing suicide in the name of love.

It was such a “success”, that shortly after its publication, in 1774, about 40 young people took their lives in a very similar way to young Werther. This strange and macabre phenomenon led to the banning of the book in countries such as Italy and Denmark.

Suicide of Young Werther

Based on similar cases, Phillips conducted a study between 1947 and 1968 in which he found some revealing and disturbing information. He found that every time The New York Times published a story about the suicide of a famous figure, in the following month the suicide rate increased by almost 12%.

This pattern has continued until present times. In mid-2017, Canada tried to ban the series “13 Reasons Why” after deciding that it could cause the same tragic effect. The World Health Organization has even prepared a document with guidelines for journalists to show what they should report on events related to suicide.

Is it dangerous to talk about suicide in the media?

It depends on the way it is done. One of the things to keep in mind is to try not to go into detail and to omit elements that may awaken feelings of compassion. Events like these shouldn’t have to trigger any sort of imitative process. However, it is clear that we must remove any sort of sensationalism that may possibly compel people to imitate the tragic event.

Many artists throughout history have often attributed an element of romanticization to the act of suicide, and this has been a determining factor in many of these deaths.

Some experts reject the Werther effect in principle, but admit there may be some related effects. They think that it is possible that people with suicidal tendencies may copy the actions of these famous people. However, at the same time, they don’t in any way blame the celebrities for the deaths of other people.

We need to treat news of this type with special sensitivity. No photos or identifying elements should be shown, especially in the cases of children and adolescents. It is important that we don’t  idealize suicide as an escape route.

“Fight to live life, to suffer it and to enjoy it … life is wonderful if you are not afraid of it”

-Charlie Chaplin-

Death of Ophelia

How to avoid the romanticization of suicide

Despite all of this, it is necessary to talk about suicide. We should be able to say that there is always another way out, and show people who can’t seem to see it exactly where they can find it. Keeping silent and turning a blind eye only serves to stigmatize a problem that is affecting more and more people.

You should always try to do it respectfully but assertively, trying to eliminate the terrible taboo that surrounds it. Trying to hide something as real as this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. What this does it to actually make it stronger.

A work of fiction, in whatever form it may be, shouldn’t be blamed for encouraging suicide. The same is true with the news. This doesn’t, of course, exempt people from reporting it in a correct and responsible manner. At the time when “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was published, we didn’t have all the information and resources that we have now. To correctly express our emotions and to ask for help should be a much easier way out than taking our lives, and we all have our part to play in this.

Bibliographic references

Phillips, David P. (June 1974). The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect. American Sociological Review, Vol.39 (3), pg.340-354