The sad story of two, psychologically vulnerable, teenage girls jumping together to their deaths off a bridge near Glasgow has touched everyone. But I fear that worse may be to come. We are all aware that teenagers frequently go through difficult periods – indeed it may have happened to some of us. But we survived and matured: our former problems no more than memories. But suicide, which is all too common, terminates the future.
So why am I particularly fearful just now? The reason is what is known as the Werther effect. Goethe, in 1774, published Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), in which the romantic protagonist committed suicide. It led to a number of emulative suicides in Europe – so much so that the book was banned in several countries.
Following the collection of data over 20 years, Frank Phillips was able to show that suicides which were given publicity were followed by substantial increases in the number of suicides during the next few months. Significantly these suicide peaks corresponded with the area in the US where a suicide had received most publicity. In addition there was an increase in fatal accidents, which were thought to be concealed suicides.
The classic Phillips study was published in 1974, but human nature has not changed, and the emotional trials of teenagers have certainly not decreased. A peer reviewed study, published in PloS ONE this month, shows that “copycat” suicides fall into a general category, where the victim is well known (perhaps a show business figure) and given wide publicity; and a more specialist category related to a local area or a community – such as a school. It is thought that the spate of suicides in Bridgend, South Wales comes into this second category.
Nowadays we have to take social networking into account. Facebook, Bebo and Twitter spring to mind. Bebo, for instance, focusses on students and, to judge by the number of invitations I receive each week, is mainly populated by females. I calculate that some 60 years separates me from these, doubtless, fair damsels, so I decline. But the members naturally form several interlocking groups of just the kind which would exchange thoughts about a teen age suicide.
The Press doesn’t help. I see that the Times and Daily Telegraph carry full pages on the day I write, and a glance at Google News shows 410 articles on the story. Today I discovered over 1000 recent media stories on teenage suicide in the UK alone. Dr Mesoudi (author of the study above) said “This highlights the need for media guidelines that restrict the dissemination and glorification of suicides.” Which is why I have not published this as a column but restricted it to registered members of Second Sight. As it happens, my next column will be on how we learn our values and behaviour from the cultures within which we move.
But I am sensible of the possibility that some of you may have vulnerable teenagers within your family. What can you do? Personally I would, in a general case, start a casual conversation over a family meal. But, where there appears to be abnormal vulnerability, only professional help will do.
Do please comment on what I have said, and if you can add other points either from a professional or private perspective, that would be a service to us all.