October 17, 2006

Werther Effect: Copycat Suicides May Not Exist

Goethe's popular comic book, Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, allegedly inspired two imitations; many young men decided to kill themselves, and many, many young men decided to dress in yellow pants and blue jackets. 

Well, that's all great, but I decded to investigate whether suicide rates really do increase after one is popularized-- a propos of the previous post's discussion about whether Lott's roommate's suicide pushed Lott towards it as well.  I was pretty sure it existed, but I may have been wrong. Preliminarily, here's what I found, through 4 examples:

A study in Austria found that gun suicides increased in the three weeks following a famous gun suicide (as compared to the three weeks preceding).   There are lots of this kind of study, which are correlations based on statistical anomalies.

A better kind of study actually interviewed the suicide attempters to see what had affected them.  For example, a U.S. study found that exposure to parental suicide was not associated with suicide; exposure to a friend or acquaintance's suicide was mildly protective, and media accounts were strongly protective.    However, this study wasn't about the immediate risk (e.g. in the following month), and the authors did note that this protective effect was only if the friend's suicide or media report was greater than a year in the past.  It is easy to speculate that the longer you have to think about what they did, the more likely you are to think it wasn't the best option.

A 1993 study in adolescents found that within one month of the suicide of a friend, depression and suicidal ideation increased; but actual suicide attempts did not

Most of the studies finding no correlation are done using the general population; how would it be different if we looked only at people with established mental illnesses?  A 2005 study found that suicides in mental illness patients were clustered in terms of place, time, and method.  Unfortunately, this study looked at the clusters and did not identify whether or not the victims were actually even known-- or whether the patients had even heard about the suicides.    (For example, they might happen at the same clinic, but that doesn't mean they knewabout each other.)

Etc, etc.  So clustering, at least in terms of lethal attempts, appears not to happen much, (and if it does it is primarily in teens.) 

As an observation, most of the articles finding Werther effects were written pre 1980, while most finding no relationship were written post 2000.  One explanation is that we are more rigorous now (HA!); the other explanation being that there is considerably less idealization of suicide now.  In fact, suicide now is unremarkable.  Consider the "medicalization" of depression and suicide, as biological diseases rather than character pathology or expressions of emotion, a communication of sorts.   Suicides then "meant" something-- something more than "I'm depressed," while suicides now are simply symptoms.  Suicide= more Wellbutrin. 

I still think they "mean" something, and I try to interpret it, but the focus nowadays is certainly not to interpret suicide as an expression of anything.  Too bad.

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