IN 1774, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was 24 years old, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The sorrows of young Werther, about a passionate romantic who kills himself in a dramatic and ritualistic way because he is unable to be with the woman he loves.
Authorities in several countries banned the book after “Werther fever” apparently saw young men, not just dressing in Werther’s trademark blue jacket and yellow vest, but also emulating his method of suicide. In some German cities, even the blue and yellow outfit was banned.
Debate about the ways in which public depictions of suicide can affect those at risk continues to this day.
Goethe later sought to distance himself from this early work, but more than 2 centuries on the term “Werther effect” is still used to describe the risk of such depictions leading to copycat behaviour.
Australia’s Mindframe National Media Initiative has been something of a pioneer in providing information to help journalists, as well as those working in fictional forms such as film and television, to avoid causing harm when they portray suicide and mental health issues in general.
How, and even whether, the media should report suicide has long been a hotly contested topic.
Until relatively recently, most media outlets saw the subject as more or less taboo, out of concern about the possible effect of coverage on others who might be at risk — unless a celebrity was involved, of course, in which case it tended to be open slather.
In recent years, though, a number of prominent advocates, including Melbourne psychiatrist Professor Pat McGorry, have argued this “culture of secrecy” increases the risk of suicide and makes it harder for the bereaved to recover from their loss.
Media coverage of the issue has become more common and possibly more responsible. It’s good to see Mindframe’s new suite of resources on the subject, released last week, saying Australian journalists generally report suicide and mental health issues well.
Mindframe acknowledges what a challenge this can be for journalists struggling to come to grips with complex issues under tight deadlines, but it also points to the benefits that can come from sensitive and accurate reporting.
“If positively framed, stories about mental illness can inform the community and be a powerful tool in addressing misconceptions and stigma associated with mental illness”, the new guide for journalists says.
On the other hand, “if reports are inaccurate, unbalanced or sensationalist it can reinforce common myths and impact significantly on people experiencing mental illness, making them less likely to seek help when they need it”.
When it comes to reporting suicide, the Mindframe recommendations include making sure the coverage is not too prominent, avoiding use of the word “suicide” in headlines, omitting detailed descriptions of method or location, and seeking comment from suicide prevention experts.
Contact details for at least two 24-hour crisis services should also be added to any story about suicide or attempted suicide.
It’s good to see the overall positive rating of media coverage in this area, and even better to see Australian suicide rates trending downwards (though a Mindframe analysis of the latest Bureau of Statistics figures appears to show rates for some groups going in the other direction, most notably teenage girls and men aged 45–49 years).
However, with the rise of the largely uncontrolled environment of the internet, traditional media outlets are likely to play a much less important role in this in the future.
Evidence about the impact of online discussion of suicide is, as Mindframe puts it, “still emerging”, though the organisation somewhat optimistically suggests its recommendations should be applied there too, including in social media.
We shouldn’t obsess so much over the undeniable risks posed by the online world that we forget its potential benefits in providing information and a platform for interventions. A cry for help can be answered on a social media site as well as by more traditional means.
The challenge, as always, will be to ensure we take advantage of the possibilities, while minimising the harms.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.