The media can help reduce the number of suicides

In The magic Flute of Mozart, the desperate Papageno wants to take his own life. But when three children show him another way, he decides to change his mind. Is it possible that information in the media also brings new hope to people who are tired of living? A group from the Medical University of Vienna set out to investigate the connection between news published in the media and suicide statistics in Austria. In 2010 he demonstrated the “Papageno effect”. However, so far only a few works have investigated such a relationship.

In order to shed more light on the subject, one of the members of the Viennese group, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, and an international team have examined eight studies, with more than 2,300 subjects, on the influence of this type of information in the media. The meta-analysis, published in The Lancethas revealed a certain “Papagene effect”: the suicidal thoughts of the participants decreased.

“Stories about people who were able to successfully manage their suicidal crises may minimize suicidal ideation,” Niederkrotenthaler and Benedikt Till, also of the University of Vienna, wrote in 2019 research. However, it’s not entirely clear what influences this effect at a psychological level or what information contributes to it. In a 2018 study, a team led by Till and Niederkrotenthaler asked more than 500 adults to read a newspaper article in which an expert explained ways to prevent suicide. It also indicated how she herself had overcome a suicidal crisis as a teenager; in another variant of the experiment, that explanation did not appear. In both cases, the participants showed fewer suicidal thoughts compared to the volunteers who had read an interview about another health topic (control group). Apparently, the expert’s explanations worked with and without including her personal experience.

“If the media focuses on coping strategies for suicidal thoughts, it can reduce suicidal ideation,” Till and Niederkrotenthaler say in a press release. “Therefore, information on suicidal ideation should include treatment successes and the chances of getting out of the crisis.” In other words, report on the warning signs, the help available and the suffering of those close to you.

The famous brother of the Papageno effect

Recommendations on how to deal with suicides in the media have been around for a long time. The background to this phenomenon lies in the well-documented “Werther effect.” The name is due to Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, at the end of which the protagonist takes his own life for an unhappy love. After its publication, it is said, numerous young people of the time committed suicide in ways that seemed to imitate that of the protagonist. Nowadays, the “Werther effect” is observed above all after the publication in the media of suicides of famous personalities, as was the case of the soccer goalkeeper Robert Enke in 2009 or that of the actor Robin Williams in 2014. two months later, the number of suicides increased by between 8 and 18 percent, a team led by Niederkrotenthaler found again in research published in 2020.

To avoid these acts of imitation, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends communication professionals, among other advice, not to give details about the manner and place of suicide, not to present suicidal behavior as an understandable response to social, cultural changes or devaluation or publish suicide notes, according to the Federation of Associations of Journalists of Spain in its manual Recommendations for the treatment of suicide in the media.

Christiane Gelitz

Reference: «Effects of media stories of hope and recovery on suicidal ideation and help-seeking attitudes and intentions: systematic review and meta-analysis». T. Niederkrotenthaler et al. in The Lancet, vol. 7, no.either 2, pp. 156-168, 2022.

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