Copycat suicide is sometimes called the ‘Werther Effect’, after Goethe published his 1774 novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ which depicted Werther’s suicide and was reportedly followed by people imitating the same method to end their lives.
It’s an interesting effect because it shows the influence on the media on what people usually think of the most extreme of decisions.
An excellent 2003 review article on the subject found that the effect holds for all media reports of suicides (including fictional ones) but celebrity suicide is most associated with subsequent deaths. Interestingly, it notes that the largest known increase followed the death of Marilyn Monroe.
The review also found found that the greater the coverage of the suicide, and the more details in the reporting, the larger the increase in subsequent deaths.
Because of this, there are now media guidelines for reporting suicide, and the Bad Science article reports on a particularly bad example where the journalist reported exactly the sort of thing most associated with increased risk in a single story – virtually nothing except details of the suicide method.
One of the most interesting bits of the Bad Science piece doesn’t appear in the print version. However, it discusses research that found the majority of people who attempt suicide and survive are pleased they did some years later:
There is a literature which I think is extremely powerful, and yet unanimously ignored by mainstream media, and that is the follow-up data on what happens later in life to people who have felt so suicidal that they have made serious attempts on their own lives.
In extremis Pajonk et al followed up a large number of people who they picked up in intensive care after very serious suicide attempts. Amongst those who survived, and did not have serious psychotic illnesses, six years later, the majority were happy and well, living productive family lives, and were ‚Äì we might reasonably interpolate – glad to be alive.