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Suicide Contagion | What It Is and Why It Matters

What Is Suicide Contagion?

Suicide contagion (also known as “copycat suicide”) is a social phenomenon where portrayals of suicide in the media (such as in newspapers, news television, and entertainment) can facilitate more deaths by suicide due to the images and wording used.

Suicide researcher David Phillips coined the term the “Werther Effect,” a name derived from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, where the protagonist’s suicide was known to cause readers to do the same.

Suicide Contagion in News & Entertainment

Research done by Madelyn S. Gould (2001) has shown evidence of media’s impact on the spreading of suicide contagion. Gould finds that nonfictional reports of suicide are particularly problematic because of their damaging messaging.

For example, Gould’s research shows that suicide contagion was more prominent when a suicide was reported on the front page of a newspaper.

Viewers were also more susceptible when hearing details about grieving families and friends. Moreover, imitation is more likely to happen among teenagers and young adults, usually matching the demographic of the victim.

While suicide contagion is triggered more so by news reports, it creates a negative impact in the entertainment industry as well.

Gould reports various television series in which a suicide was depicted and viewers were susceptible to suicide contagion.

For example, the 1993 episode of Causality, which displayed a teen girl’s overdose, resulted in a viewer imitating the overdose.

The same show aired another episode in 1999 in which a character overdoses, which caused imitation. Additionally, suicide and violence portrayed in films shown to college undergrads in 1991 triggered the viewers to commit similar acts (Gould 207).

The results show that those most susceptible to suicide contagion are young adult viewers (i.e. teenagers and college students).

Case of Netflix Original’s “13 Reasons Why”

In 2017, Netflix Original’s “13 Reasons Why” became national news, particularly because of its controversial depiction of teen suicide.

While they acknowledged its ability to open up the conversation about suicide and depression, the show was regarded as destructive for viewers because of its poor portrayal of suicide.

Synopsis of the Story

13 Reasons Why, based off the novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who leaves a series of pre-recorded tapes to be shared with her peers before committing suicide.

While the show does not outwardly or explicitly state that Hannah has a mental illness, it can be inferred by the tapes she leaves behind that she had been struggling with depression.

Each tape discusses a different person she blames for causing her to kill herself. The episodes are split up into each of these tapes, the different “reasons why” she decides to commit suicide.

Clay Jensen, Hannah’s love interest and living protagonist of the show, listens to these tapes and watches how they have affected the people whose names are mentioned in the tapes.

While images of Hannah’s bleeding arms appear throughout the show (in the form of Clay’s imagination), it is not until the end of the series where the audience sees an explicit scene of Hannah using razors to split her wrists in a bathtub. 

This potentially caused massive suicide contagion.

Suicide Contagion | Responses and Reactions to 13 Reasons Why

David Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) believes “the fact that Hannah gets to tell her story after her death, through the audiotapes, glamorizes the death and sends a potentially dangerous message to viewers” (Butler).

“Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality,” Reidenberg says. “That gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide.”

While most suicides involve planning, the way Hannah crafts her tapes and takes careful measures to have them shared is not realistic.

According to Deborah Serani, Psy.D., “Most depressed individuals experience a profound depletion in executive functioning and have poor impulse control. It’d be highly unlikely for a suicidal person to have the stamina, insight, and presence of mind to create such an elaborate scheme like Hannah did” (Serani).

As far as the image of the suicide itself, “13 Reasons Why” does provide a disclaimer at the beginning of the suicide episode, but the show does not follow the above guidelines of safe portrayals of suicide whatsoever.

Guidelines for Safe Portrayals of Suicide in Entertainment

Below are some of the guidelines provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for ensuring safe portrayals of suicide in the media:

  1. Do not misrepresent suicide as a mysterious act by an otherwise “healthy” or “high-achieving” person.
  2. Limit the prominence, length, and number of stories about a particular suicide.
  3. Avoid providing a detailed description of the method and site.
  4. Provide local treatment resource information.
  5. Exercise care with pictures of the victim and/or grieving relatives and friends to avoid fostering overidentification with the victim and inadvertently glorifying the death.
  6. Do not portray suicide in a heroic or romantic fashion.
  7. Do not present suicide as a reasonable way of problem-solving.

Suicide Contagion Considerations for Content Creators

While the research and guidelines suggest that images and details of a suicide be kept to a minimum, it is understandable that this may be difficult to do in the entertainment industry.

If creators feel that a suicide is crucial for the story’s plot and development, there are some ways in which suicide can be depicted without directly or indirectly causing suicide contagion.

Additionally, Gould’s research has shown that suicide contagion is less likely to occur if the person who commits suicide is accused of committing murder, violent acts, or other crimes.

This is due to the fact that viewers do not want to associate themselves with a criminal/antagonist. Content creators can use this research to their advantage by making the character less appealing to viewers (i.e., a murderer, criminal, etc.).

Suicide contagion is also less likely to occur if the suicide is in the form of rituals/religious ceremonies/mass murders.

If creators want their character(s) to die from suicide, planting them into one of these sorts of scenes would help prevent further contagion.

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Samantha Mineroff

Samantha Mineroff is a writer, mental health advocate, and aspiring author. In 2018, her paper, “The Rhetoric of Major Depressive Disorder: Performativity and Intra-activity of Emotions in Major Depression” won best seminar paper award at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At the Poetics And Linguistics Association (PALA) Conference in 2019, she went to The University of Liverpool to present her paper “An Application of Scripts, Schemas, and Negative Accommodation Theory in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.” She currently works as a marketing writer for clinical research. She enjoys live jazz, good conversation, and writing letters. You can reach her at sammineroff@gmail.com