A warning from Werther

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.

There is a good, informative US site. If I needed more direct help, I would go to this UK site.

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A warning from Werther

  1. claret says:

    It is difficult to see how the media can be restrained from reporting on something so emotive as 2 girls jumping to their death from a bridge in what appears to be a suicide pact. Add the elements of a disturbed upbringing and years in local authority care and you have a heady mix of circumstances that cry out for some explanation. So much so that it would be almost negligent of any investigative reporter not to ‘dig’ into the tragic circumstances that brought all this to its desperate conclusion.
    Of course it doesn’t stop at random suicide. Would we have all these ‘suicide’ trips to Switzerland if it was not glamorized in some way.
    ‘Dying with Dignity’ has proved to be a masterstroke of a phrase for those who promote suicide as an answer to a problem.
    ‘Witholding food and water’ sounds a lot more humane than starving a vulnerable patient to a lingering death where
    the body begins to eat itself.
    For the young death is not necessarily seen in its full finality. How many of us as children, having been upset by our parents, imagined them crying over our coffins and us somehow gaining some comfort from the fact of ‘now look what you have caused!’

  2. Fariam says:

    I am struck by the phrase. “a more specialist category related to a local area or a community – such as a school”.

    As many readers may know, Ireland has seen a sharp rise in suicides, particularly amongst young men. I know of many families who have lost members to suicide, including several in my own place of origin. It is a sad fact that some of these were young men (18-20) is their prime and with everything in front of them. On closer examination, it was discovered while looking through some old photographs that three young men had been in the same class at school a few years earlier.

    Regarding suicide, information available stresses that it is vitally important to talk about suicide, particularly if suicide has occurred or been attempted in a family. It is the way to break the circle of fear, silence, guilt, blame, anger and sorrow which usually surrounds suicide. If this is not tackled, there is serious danger that it will happen again within the family – or circle of friends, for that matter. It is also necessary to take people seriously if and when they talk about suicide, and not brush it aside out of fear or discomfort. The simple fact of being heard can prevent a suicide (think of the Samaritans phone-line); provide a safety-valve and a harbour of refuge; and also enable the person to seek help.

    Often young people are traumatized today; others are sheltered and cushioned beyond reason. It is necessary to give young people the strength and stamina to face problems, let-downs and difficulties by teaching them from an early age that it is sometimes necessary to accept “no” as an answer; to be confined and confronted with pain and disappointment; to find alternatives and to get up after a fall and start over again. These are vital life saving skills. I think it is also important to enable young people to reflect on why others take their lives; to help them see its effects on family and friends, and to see the cowardice, selfishness, sickness and hopelessness that is inherent in the act.

  3. Fariam says:

    I regret that there are so few posts with regard to this important subject.

    I would also like to draw attention to the Pastoral Letter, “You are precious in my sight” which was issued by the Irish Bishop´s Conference for “Day of Life” on 4th. October.

    Day for Life 2009: ‘You are precious in my sight’
    ‘Day for Life’ Pastoral Letter on the theme of suicide (available in English, Irish and Polish languages)
    http://www.catholicbishops.ie/publications/51/1527-day-for-life-2009-you-are-precious-in-my-sight

    Press release/summary: http://www.catholicbishops.ie/media-centre/press-release-archive/64-press-release-archive-2009/1544-2-october-2009bishops-publish-pastoral-letter-addressing-suicide

    Also worthwhile:
    “From the Via Dolorosa to the Via Gloriosa”
    Sister Janet on the difficult and painful subject of suicide
    http://www.dayforlife.org/

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