Youtube star Logan Paul received widespread criticism this week for posting a video in which he and his friends came across the body of a man who died by suicide in a forest in Japan. Paul later apologized for posting the video, which showed the man’s body as well as what were perceived to be lighthearted reactions to the situation. The video reportedly received over 6 million views before it was removed.
“Even though people do still wonder how a behavior as serious as suicide can be contagious, there are consistent results from so many studies that indicate that following a media story, suicide rates go up,” Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who studies suicide risk and prevention, told Newsweek. Gould also points out this is "far from the first example of the dangers of amplifying stories of suicide."
And it’s far from the first time that media outlets have had to reckon with the question of suicide contagion: the phenomenon of increased risk of suicide after exposure to suicide, including depictions of or reporting on suicide in the media. Last May, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why featured a graphic scene depicting a character’s suicide. The show sparked several articles examining whether the series would stoke the effect, along with a research study in JAMA Internal Medicine showing Google searches for terms related to suicidal thoughts spiked after the show’s release.
As Gould tells Newsweek, the idea that depictions of suicide can lead people to follow suit has a long history. "Images can be very powerful. They can get stuck in your head," Gould said.
The 1772 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther tells the story of a young man who kills himself after a failed romance. It was reportedly banned in several cities for fear that young people in Europe, many of whom mimicked the protagonist’s style of dress, would take their own lives as well. This phenomenon has been dubbed the Werther effect, a term that researchers have adopted over a century after the book’s publication.
The Werther effect is a touchstone in research and writing about suicide. But, researchers have also found a flipside in the the “Papageno effect”: reported stories that focus on people who have suicidal thoughts, and ultimately find ways of coping and surviving were associated with a decrease in the suicide rate.
The vast body of research suggests that the media does hold an outsized responsibility when it comes to publicizing stories of suicide through their reporting. So how can they report on suicide without doing harm?
Gould was also involved in assembling a set of recommendations for media organizations in covering suicide. After Austria adapted media guidelines for reporting on suicide in the 1980s, suicide attempts in the Viennese subway decreased more than 80 percent.
“By reporting on how people can get help," Gould said, "that’s been shown to save lives."
If you are in need of help, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The number for the Crisis Text Line is 741741.