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The Life You Save May Be Everyone Else's

Fresh research on Facebook, fellowship, and “suicide clusters.”
The death of Lucretia, Eduardo Rosales. (Photo: Public Domain)

The death of Lucretia, Eduardo Rosales. (Photo: Public Domain)

If life is often an act of imitation, so too is death.

Reporters and shrinks and social scientists and clerics of every stripe have argued over patterns of emulative suicide for centuries. David Phillips calls it the “Werther Effect,” a phrase he introduced in 1974; the term derives from Goethe's high-sentimental novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a viral hit throughout Europe on its publication exactly two centuries earlier. Young men imitated Werther's garb (so much yellow!), they imitated his raptures upon entering Rome from the north, and they imitated his lover's malaise. Before long, the book was banned in Leipzig and various other cities, not because of the yellow but because lots of young men dressing and pining in imitation of Werther had made a vogue of imitating their protagonist's suicide, as well.

It now appears that emulative suicide’s principal drive is not glamour but rather a sense of proximity to the death, a vivid identification with the small details.

In "The Werther Effect," Phillips was challenging Emile Durkheim's longstanding assertion that imitative suicide was not a thing. Modern research suggests more and more that Durkheim was wrong, that Phillips is right, and—as of this past week—that specific modes of media make the Werther Effect possible.

It now appears that emulative suicide’s principal drive is not glamour but rather a sense of proximity to the death, a vivid identification with the small details. In a study published May 2 in The Lancet, Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, evinces an important relationship between the type of news coverage a suicide receives, and the number of copycats it inspires. Gould's main draw: “Our findings indicate that the more sensational the coverage of the suicides, and the more details the story provides, then the more likely there are to be more suicides.” At Poynter, Kelly McBride emphasizes the study's bearing on "noble, angelic" portrayals of suicide, portrayals that have palpable repercussions in a community.

The material isn't entirely new (as Goethe can attest)—Columbia released a related study in 1987; in October 2003, the American Psychological Association issued a memo re: best practices for news reporting on suicides; and last May, researchers published a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that made a strong case for the special potency of the Werther Effect among 12- to 17-year-olds whenever coverage emphasized the redemptive or noble aspects of a suicide case.

But eulogy-turned-elegy is hardly the only problem. Vivid, graphic details in news stories (and good stories do not flinch) exert a powerful sense of suggestion—especially where photos and social media are involved. In a commentary to Gould's paper, Jane Pirkis and Jo Robinson from the University of Melbourne write:

It makes intuitive sense ... that less regulated, more volatile, and more interactive media might have an even greater effect, particularly because young people are not only major consumers of these forms of media, but also the creators of their content.

And here's where reporters cede the stage (briefly) to Facebook's chronically noncommittal policies about privacy and abuse. On May 5, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Marine vet Daniel Rey Wolfe documented his bloody suicide on the social network, essentially including a drumroll before the final act. His friends' real-time, virtual intercessions are heartbreaking to read; more worrisome, in the aftermath, was Facebook's failure to remove the photographs for two days, a series that begins with empty liquor bottles and closes with close shots of Wolfe's gashed-open extremities. (As the Daily Mailreports, even the family's intercession bore no fruit until enough strangers on the Internet had heard what was going on.)

Dr. Dan Reidenberg, director of "SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education" and a consultant in suicide prevention whose clients include Facebook, spoke to Adam Weinstein at Gawker, echoing Gould's caveats:

"The research tells us that there is an increased risk of 'contagion' with suicide where graphic images are posted," [Reidenberg] said. But where to draw the line between acceptable and taboo content is difficult, all the more so for a company with hundreds of millions of users posting content: "Just the photo itself, as graphic as it is, just the image, we can see lots of that online.”

Will editors start whitewashing their writers' suicide reporting in light of these new findings (or, if you prefer, this affirmation of old findings)? Probably not. Most will keep doing what they do, operating within their respective traditions of ethics and taste. That it sells will continue to ensure coverage of anything sensational, but remember that reporters often don't know that much about the departed. Facebook, meanwhile, has access to far more details about these people than journalists do. While the company sometimes seems confused about its own privacy policies, the Oklahoma incident is especially glaring, and it remains to be seen whether Wolfe's family will bring legal action.

Until social media platforms begin responding to the Werther Effect, we can take some solace in considering the many networks that now offer grief counseling, treatment for PTSD, and crowdsourced mental-health services within a community of sympathetic fellowship, both on- and offline. Besides traditional hotlines like that of the National Veterans' Foundation, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now offers an outlet where you can report death threats that you've seen on social media. (They also have a “manly help” site——and a selection of manly e-cards, presumably aimed to deflect certain un-manly stigmas associated with mental illness.) Reddit has a shockingly civil sub-page dedicated to thoughtful, compassionate “life-hacks” for depression and suicidal ideation. And in the days after Wolfe's suicide, his former Marine buddies gathered on his no-longer-bloodied Facebook page to share their phone numbers and email addresses in case one of the others got the bug. Across the country, smaller regional groups, congregations, and secular church-basement gatherings that still operate via phone-tree all save lives every day. In a community, one imitates the living, not the dead.

In early January of 2007, a good friend of mine parked his vehicle on a loading dock, climbed an elevated bridge, and leapt. The river would have been below freezing and still was when a few of us visited the dock two weeks later. I remember that our breaths were visible, that some carried prayers, and that I respected his decision and very nearly his bravery even as the pain of resentment at times was uppermost. There were no gruesome photographs on Facebook, but the funeral was of the open-casket variety. Someone at the funeral home had done a lot of good work. At the reception, mothers hugged us with a cautious warmth that suggested a warning or a plea; in private, the younger generation made promises to each other, promises that so far we each have kept. Worthier to have emulation run upstream—to be strong, in the faith that others may find strength in yours.