Differences in Individual Suicide Risk Assessment in the Light of the Werther Effect

TitleDifferences in Individual Suicide Risk Assessment in the Light of the Werther Effect
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Scherr, S., and C. Reinemann
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Munich
Section or WGAudience Section
DateWed 26 June
Slot CodeAUDW3b
Slot Code (Keyword)AUDW3b
Time of Session14:00-15:30
Session TitleMedia Effects
Submission ID5817

Suicide is a serious societal problem and one of the leading causes of death worldwide. According to recent WHO estimates, about 900.000 people die by suicide per year worldwide. With regard to young people, suicide is among the top three leading causes of death. Today, it is well-established that suicides may be clustered in time and space. From the perspective of audience research, media induced time-clusters of suicide are known as 'Werther-Effect'. The term refers to allegedly occurring suicide epidemics in Europe after the publication of Goethe´s 'The Sorrows of Young Werther' in 1774. Until now, although the problem of imitational suicides induced by explicit media content has been recognized by media responsibles, the mass media continue to report on suicides in a questionable manner (see the 2012 IAMCR presentation of Quiring & Schäfer, 2012). Moreover, nowadays audiences may share experienced suicide reports easily in the social web. The new media environment makes it necessary to steadily reconsider both the theoretical and methodological framework on which 'Werther Effect' research is based. Again, the 'Werther Effect' hypothesis focuses especially on the direct behavioral outcome of media coverage on suicides. Surprisingly, attention towards and perception of suicidal media content has not been challenged by research so far. It is unquestionable that clinically relevant predispositions of suicide such as depression as well as concurring media effects are likely to influence the attentional and perceptual conditions of the 'Werther Effect'. Thus, the omission of this knowledge in communication research seems to hamper the development of a more detailed understanding of media induced suicides. To bridge this gap, we bring together different perspectives from communication and psychiatric research. We assume that people will not necessarily react on suicidal media content directly, but, at the same time, overestimate the suicide risk for other people evoked by the suicide depiction. Our assumption is supported by empirical evidence of prominently reported suicides which are not followed by factual suicides (this is what Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2010 introduced as 'Papageno Effect'). Furthermore, following Gunther and Storey (2003), presumed media influences suggest that people tend to overestimate media influences on others in a general way. Gunther and Storey´s work implies that such indirect media effects may nevertheless have direct influences on suicidality in the long run. We will discuss this aspect and its implication for future 'Werther Effect' research. To empirically test our assumptions, we used existing experimental data on emerging suicidal thoughts after the exposure to suicidal media content and conducted a secondary data analysis. We especially focused on within subject differences of suicide risk perceptions. Participants were either exposed to a suicidal rock music video (n = 67) or to a generally comparable, but non-suicidal rock music video (n = 66). The study supports our hypothesis of a 'Presumed Werther Effect'. Participants overestimated the influence only of a suicidal media stimulus on others. Furthermore, the effect was moderated by individual predispositions, like depression. Results will be discussed against the background of depressive negativism (Beck, 1987) and suicide prevention.

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