When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther—the story of a young man who falls in love with a woman engaged to someone else—was published in 1774, it became an instant classic. Napoleon purportedly read the French translation of the novel more than seven times, and young people throughout Europe began donning Werther-inspired attire. But before long, Goethe's book was banned in many European countries—primarily because its final pages contain a vivid description of how the heartbroken protagonist kills himself, which inspired some readers to do the same. "People would be found dead with it in their back pockets," says William Eaton, professor emeritus in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Two centuries later, in a landmark study, sociologist David Phillips labeled this form of contagion "the Werther effect" and provided statistics showing that media stories on suicide, especially those featuring celebrities, corresponded with rises in suicide rates. Since then, multiple studies as well as high-profile incidents—including Robin Williams' suicide in 2014, which was followed by an excess of more than 1,800 suicides over the next four months—have backed Phillips up.
A rise in rates, Eaton makes clear, is not caused by grief. "It's imitative," he says. "Basically, it affects people who have thought about suicide, decided not to do it, and then something happens and they follow through."
Eaton, along with his colleague Holly Wilcox, a professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Mental Health, and Aneri Pattani, a Bloomberg Fellow and national correspondent at Kaiser Health News, are hoping to help upend the newsroom practice of either ignoring suicide or, in the case of celebrity deaths, sensationalizing it. In May, they launched Responsible Reporting on Suicide for Journalists, a massive open online course— aka MOOC—demonstrating ways in which reporters can help tackle a rarely discussed public health issue.
Each year, more than 700,000 people worldwide die by suicide; it is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, the World Health Organization, calling suicide a "serious public health issue," released a prevention guide enlisting the media as a potential ally. The guide, as well as Pattani's arrival in the fellowship program, prompted Wilcox and Eaton to team up for the online course, the idea being not to wait until someone is in crisis, Wilcox says, "but to try to prevent them from ever thinking about suicide."
The free course is divided into three modules: Wilcox covers the public health angle; Eaton, the history of media's effect on suicide rates; and Pattani, the do's and don'ts of suicide reporting.
Pattani's section of the course is grounded in personal experience. Early in her career, she was told, by researchers and those who'd lost loved ones to suicide, that while they appreciated her reporting, some of the language she'd used in articles was unintentionally harmful. She was directed, instead, to a "best practices" document at reportingonsuicide.org, a joint effort of public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations, and journalists.
🧵Suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide & the way we as journalists cover it can make a big difference. I'm excited to announce that @DrHollyWilcox @JohnsHopkinsSPH & I have launched a free online @coursera course to help reporters do this safely. https://t.co/HVMAUgcZvm— Aneri Pattani (@aneripattani) May 18, 2022
Among the recommendations, designed to contextualize and deglamorize the act: Instead of describing the method and location of the suicide, simply report the death as a suicide, keeping information about the location general. Avoid descriptors like "skyrocketing" when characterizing suicide rates, and use words like "increase" or "rise" instead. And do not use the term "committed suicide." Experts agree that "commit" suggests a sin or crime. "Died by suicide" is preferable.
As a journalist, Pattani recognizes the inherent conflict in passing along such lessons. "We're taught to include details to get people interested in a topic," she says. But most reporters' top priority, she adds, is helping their communities. "And we can use our writing and our sourcing to find angles and people who are compelling in different ways."
In particular, the course stresses that providing readers with context is important. Suicide coverage should include comments from mental health professionals, to discuss risk factors as well as treatment options for those considering suicide. And, when possible, stories of those who've either survived suicide attempts or decided against them should be shared. "It's not a permanent thing—that people want to die by suicide," Eaton explains. "Sometimes it's very temporary, and you just have to prevent its occurrence during that moment of weakness."
To date, the course has drawn nearly 400 enrollees.
The Hopkins team knows it can't change decades of newsroom culture overnight. "But any attention journalists can bring to the topic—and in a way that's persuasive and can get people more interested and make them aware that there's a public health problem—is a fantastic opportunity for us," Wilcox says.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, dial the National Suicide & Crisis Hotline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These helplines provide free and confidential support 24/7.