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The Media's Role in 'Suicide Clusters'

Leo Etherington
Leo Etherington

Well-intentioned reporting can have devastating consequences if conclusions are made prematurely.

In the late 18th century, a deadly outbreak plagued most of Europe and resulted in an eerie trend of suicides. The culprit: a story. It was during the German Sturm and Drang literary movement that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young hero who commits suicide to escape the woes induced by unrequited love. Upon its publication, a strain of "Werther Fever" surfaced; many readers suddenly dressed like Werther and wrote diaries like Werther, and several others ended their lives like Werther. This phenomenon will later be coined as the "Werther Effect" or a "suicide cluster," which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as a chain of three or more completed suicides, often triggered by one well-publicized suicide.

We are still telling tales similar to that of "Young Werther," except now with technological advancements, television, and social media, our stories are more graphic and widespread. A Columbia University research team confirmed that suicide is a "contagion [that] spreads either directly, by knowing a suicide victim, or indirectly, by learning of a suicide through word-of-mouth or the media" and people between the ages of 15 to 19 are two to four times more likely to catch the disease than people from any other age group. Keep in mind, however, that this study was conducted in 1990, before the birth of social media and the internet as we know it today.

Today, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in adults and the third in people between 15 and 24. To put these numbers into perspective, death by gun is the 50th leading cause of death in the U.S. While neither media coverage nor scripted stories of suicide outright give people the idea to end their lives, incautious portrayals can create negative cognitive pathways in the vulnerable, adding fuel to a volatile fire.

On August 30, news broke out around the world that yet another transgender student had taken his own life. U.K. native Leo Etherington was only 15 years old. Almost every major news outlet reported on the incident with the implication that Leo ended his life several days after being denied a request to change his name at the high school he attended. Reports described the teen as "angry" with the people and institutions that forbade him to live as his authentic self. However, according to a joint statement released by Leo's father, Martin Etherington, and Wycombe High School, "it was two years after the request was made that Leo took his own life."

In fact, the school had no issue with the name change, but school policy required that Leo wait until he turned 16 before the school could legally use his new name. In addition, Sharon Cromie, the executive head teacher of Wycombe High School, points out that the school has a comprehensive Equalities and Cohesion Scheme in place, which states that "the governing body will consider any acts of harassment including those on the grounds of gender reassignment as totally unacceptable and outside the ethos and culture of the school." Had these details been included in the media's original portrayal of the events leading up to Leo's fatal decision, another story might have been painted -- one much more complicated in nature.

This neither erases Leo's death nor invalidates evidence that LGBT youth are severely at risk for suicidal behavior. Without a doubt, Leo's suicide is concerning and surpassingly tragic. This anecdote serves to provide an example of how storytellers can take facts and twist the details in order to propagate an angle of a story that coincides with the script we are already familiar with. In 2001, Cornell University psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams surveyed a sample of youth who identified as either lesbian, gay, or bisexual, of which 30 percent admitted to attempting suicide. After further questioning, he found that half of the reported suicide attempts turned out to be suicidal thinking, not an attempt.

The significance of distinguishing the two suicidal behaviors suggests that LGBT youth have been unknowingly taught to recite this "suffering suicidal script" because it is what they consistently see in the media's depictions of LGBT youth as highly troubled. We simplify stories to reinforce larger themes and broadcast a message, but in simplifying a very complex problem, we actually cement the suicidal script deeper into the minds of our impressionable youth.

In the spring of 2009, a wave of suicides struck the people of Palo Alto, Calif., and left the community mourning the death of 10 adolescents -- four of whom were affiliated with Gunn High School. Five years later, the Palo Alto Unified School District lost four teens to suicide within several months. A total of 232 youth suicides in 12 years makes the suicide rate in Santa Clara County alone five times the national average. Following the most recent suicide cluster, the CDC conducted a year-long study with the purpose of understanding factors present behind teen suicides in order to enhance suicide prevention protocol in the county. After reviewing over 246 articles covering the Palo Alto suicide deaths, researchers found that media outlets did not follow safe suicide reporting guidelines.

The guidelines include using caution when sharing details of a suicide event, such as discussing the method of suicide and exploiting photographs of memorials or of grieving family and friends. They also discourage potentially dangerous wording; i.e. "committed suicide" or "killed himself." It would be difficult to find a causal relationship between incautious stories and suicide copycats, but "there is potential for population level suicidal behaviors to increase as a result of media reporting."

The CDC also conducted studies in Fairfax County, Va., which saw three deaths by suicide among teenage girls in one month, and in Douglas County, Colo., with three deaths by suicide within two weeks and found similar correlations between unsafe media portrayals and the increased presence of suicidal behavior.

Although suicide clusters make up only 1 to 5 percent of teen suicides, "they represent a class of suicides that may be particularly preventable," and storytellers like me have the potential to positively contribute to suicide prevention strategies. With every story we tell, we write a script -- one that many look to for consolation, comfort, education, and solutions. It is a powerful medium; our words can elicit emotion and influence behaviors. And now, with the growing presence of social media and networks, the disease is becoming dangerously contagious. So when journalists tell stories, I urge them to rewrite the "suffering suicidal script." Consider your audience, educate yourself on what words and details are triggering, and stay updated with suicide prevention research so that you know your stories are closer to making the world a better, safer place.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, here is a list of 24/7 hotlines that can help.
The Trevor Project (866) 488-7386.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255
The GLBT National Help Center (888) 843-4564, (800) 246-7743 (youth hotline)

MONICA RODMAN is a writer and video producer for The Advocate.

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