Addressing Suicide: The Role of the Media, Friends, and Family
After the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade last week, media and social media users have yet again been grappling with how to report and post responsibly, and how to avoid contributing to suicide contagion.
Suicide contagion, also known as the Werther effect after the character in “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe, is the phenomenon whereby after hearing of a suicide, someone vulnerable will follow suit. In the novel, Werther chooses to shoot himself after being entangled in a hopeless love triangle. After its publication, young men emulated Werther’s suicide, resulting in the book being banned in some areas.
Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, shared his understanding about this phenomenon with CBC, addressing the effect of reporting on suicide and offering insight on how to discuss the issue in a way that lessens—rather than increases—the suicide rate among people who are already vulnerable.
“People who are struggling with depression, or anxiety, or substance use problems have thinking errors,” he said. “Their thoughts say to them, at least in some cases, that life isn’t worth living, that people don’t care about them.”
This way of thinking makes these people more vulnerable to the Werther effect, Sinyor said.
“So when people see a prominent suicide death in a celebrity, they sometimes identify with that, and they make the mistake of copying that behaviour, not realizing that it was a terrible tragedy and that instead, they should have sought help.”
But tragedy is not actually the usual outcome for a person who considers suicide.
“We have to understand that the overwhelming majority of people who think about suicide ultimately find resilience. They find paths to resilience, and they don’t die by suicide,” Sinyor said.
And these cases should be publicized, research suggests.
“There was actually research that was done in Europe which showed that after media reported on what typically happens, which is people thinking about suicide, but seeking help and getting better, that there was actually a reduction of suicides across the entire country of Austria,” he said.
The European research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, shows that suicide rates could potentially be reduced by publicizing examples of people thinking about suicide, but then adopting “coping strategies other than suicidal behaviour in adverse circumstances.”
This phenomenon is known as the Papageno effect, based on the character Papageno in the 18th-century opera “The Magic Flute.” Papageno contemplated suicide, but other characters helped him find another way through his problems.
Sinyor recommends a strategy to help guide vulnerable people in your social circle toward resilience.
“Usually, if someone around you is depressed or anxious or withdrawing or using more substances, people pick up on it.” he said.
“And I think that what people can do is just to listen, to be there and to approach the person and to say that you care, that they are an important person, that you’re interested in helping them, and maybe just talking could be enough for some people to help with a suicidal crisis.”
If that isn’t working, Sinyor said, you can “encourage them to reach out, to call a crisis line, or go to an emergency department.”
“There is hope.”
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566
In Quebec: 1-866-APPELLE