Suicide & Media - Friend or Foe?
Date: 17 February 2011
The seriousness of suicidal behaviour as a major public health problem is reflected by the fact that suicide ranks as the 10th leading causes of death globally1. In Malaysia, suicide rates have been estimated to be 8-13/100 0002. There is usually no single cause of suicide. On the contrary, a stress-diathesis model that depicts the interaction of multiple biological and psychosocial risk factors offers a better explanation of how and why a case of suicide has occurred. An understanding of the risk and protective factors of suicide are important in developing suicide prevention strategies.
On top of well-established risk factors for suicide such as depression, previous suicide attempts, negative life events, socio-economic disadvantage, etc, there is accumulating evidence in the literature that the media carries a significant impact on the occurrence of suicide. The terminology “Werther effect” refers to imitation of copycat suicides attributed to the impact of sensationalized media reporting of suicides. Interestingly, this term has its origins in 18th century German literature whereby the publication of Goethe’s novel entitled ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther” in which the hero committed suicide was followed by reports of young male suicides that employed the same method of suicide.
Authors of the article entitled: Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects3 have taken this analogy a step further by conceptualizing any suicide-protective effects of the media as the “Papageno effect”, borrowing from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” in which the character Papageno refrained from suicide due to the availability of alternative coping strategies.
One might wonder at the relevance of such esoteric ideas in Malaysia. Anecdotal reports seem to suggest that we are far from immune to the effects of media, negative or otherwise. Such an example would include a local case in which a depressed and suicidal patient was spoilt for choice in determining the method of attempting suicide from countless websites that encouraged suicide. Another recent example would be that of the sensationalized reporting of a case of suicide in a 22 year-old, Malaysian, male who posted his suicidal intentions on Facebook barely an hour before he committed suicide. Just by ‘googling’ the keywords: Malaysian, Facebook, suicide, victim; I was able to access the sensationalized local newspaper report of this unfortunate occurrence, complete with pictures of the victim after the act and the method employed in addition to his Facebook posting of his ‘suicide note’.
This begs the question of what can be done in the light of such scenarios. Though guidelines of responsible media reporting on suicide have been published and promulgated in Malaysia, implementation of such guidelines remains a challenge. Some countries such as Australia and South Korea have begun to implement strategies such as restricting access to “pro-suicide” websites. Research on the impact of media on suicide is greatly needed in our local context in order to communicate more effectively the importance of responsible media reporting on suicide in suicide prevention to all stakeholders i.e. journalists, policy-makers, law enforcers, general public, etc. So whether the media is our friend or our foe really depends on how creative and resourceful we are in making the media an ally in our efforts towards suicide prevention in our nation.
Dr. Chan Lai Fong
Lecturer & Psychiatrist
1. Murray, C.J.L., Lopez, A.D. (Eds.) (1996). The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2. Maniam, T. (1995). Suicide and undetermined violent deaths in Malaysia, 1996-1990-Evidence for the misclassification of suicide statistics. Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health, 2, 181-185.
3. Niederkrotenthaler T, Voracek M, Herberth A, Till B, Strauss M, Etzersdorfer E, Eisenwort B, Sonneck G. (2010). Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(3), 234-43.
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