Media Depictions of Suicide Influence Individual Perceptions of Health Risks

In: Searching for Words: How Can We Tell Our Stories of Suicide
Authors:
Sebastian Scherr
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Carsten Reinemann
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To date, research has shown that the number of suicides in a society can be reduced by appropriate media reporting on suicides or by avoiding any reporting at all. Thus, empirical research on media-related antecedents of copycat suicides is without doubt highly relevant. Most of the studies conducted in this field of research draw on Phillips´ seminal study about the ‘Werther Effect’,1 in which the impact of front page news articles about suicides in the New York Times on the national suicide rate was explored on an aggregate level. Only a few studies focus on the imitative component of suicidality on the individual level. One exception is an experiment conducted by Rustad and colleagues in 2003 that could not prove a copycat effect inspired by media content about suicide on the well-briefed volunteers of the experiment as suggested by Phillips. At the same time, and in line with existing research in the field of communication, we found that the volunteers in the study we reanalysed, overestimated the effects of a (fictional) media stimulus about suicide on others compared to themselves. This fact is of great relevance as the underestimation of personal risk may enhance a dangerous lack of awareness in the future when being faced with media content about suicide (this is what we call a presumed or ‘indirect Werther Effect’), as not all antecedents of copycat suicides (like depression) are already comprehensively explored.

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