Task force considers the 'Werther effect'

One question considered by the special task force of police, health and social services set up in Bridgend to review the spate of suicides is whether they are examples of the "Werther effect", the name given to suicide clusters after the title of a novel by Goethe.

The Sorrow of Young Werther is the story of a young artist who shoots himself after an ill-fated love affair. Following its publication in 1774 there was a series of reports of young men who took their own lives in the same way, which led to the book being banned.

The copycat element in suicide is a well recognised phenomenon. The victims tend to come from similar backgrounds and are at greatest risk if they know other victims. In Bridgend, the Werther effect is thought to have been amplified by messages posted on internet sites such as Bebo, intended as tributes to the victims but which have instead romanticised the manner of their deaths.

Professor David Gunnell, an expert on suicide at Bristol University, said: "Young people are more likely to see and read items concerning suicide on the internet than in the newspapers... A medium like Bebo will have an impact on suicidal behaviour."

In some countries, such as Norway, reporting of suicide is virtually banned – its journalism code says it should "in general never be given any mention". In the UK, the Press Complaints Commission amended its guidance in 2006 to editors to avoid "excessive detail about the method".

The Samaritans, which provides support to people with suicidal feelings, says that to reduce the risk of copycat deaths, suicides should not be romanticised, permanent memorials should be discouraged, suicide notes should not be disclosed and excessive detail should be avoided.

www.samaritans.org

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