Werther Effect

In 1747, German author, Johann von Goethe, wrote one of the most important and influential novels in the history of literature.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) is about a young artist named Werther who writes letters to a friend about a woman he has fallen in love with. Sadly, the story ends when Werther sees no path of marrying Charlotte and decides to die by suicide.

This book launched the career of Goethe and made him an overnight literary celebrity. The book also triggered one of the first known examples of Copycat Suicides, where young men would dress like the hero and die by suicide. As reports began to surface, the book and clothing would eventually be banned in some parts of Europe.

What’s happening here?

It turns out that social conditions that cause one person to die by suicide can trigger others to die accidentally.

Today, when a story of suicide becomes highly publicized the number of people that die in commercial-airline crashes increases by 1,000 percent. And it isn’t just airplanes, but also, automobile fatalities significantly increase too.

David Phillips calls this the Werther Effect.

In his research, he showed that two months after every front-page story of someone dying by suicide leads to fifty-eight more people dying who otherwise would have gone living. In addition, stories of suicides in which only one person dies will generate accidents with only one person involved. Stories with suicide-murder generate accidents with multiple deaths.

In Utah, the leading cause of death for 10 to 17-year-olds is suicide. Many are often left wondering, how can this be happening?

It’s really important to note here, that Goethe’s work parrels what is happening here in Utah. Goethe’s writing did not cause or encourage readers to die by suicide; they were already thinking about it. The readers saw themselves as the hero in Goethe’s story and it was the permission they have been looking for to imitate. This is how memes and idea viruses spread; people decide how they act on the basis of some other person’s behavior.

It can be simply understood by this simple sentence: People like us do stuff like this. Suicide begets suicide. So when we see someone like us die by suicide, we are more susceptible to die by suicide. The good news is you are not in a situation of no choice, just no easy choices left to make. That life begets life. The tide can change when we can see people like us who do hard things like this.

[This is unofficially part three of a topic I have been deeply thinking about to explain the teen suicide epidemic we are facing in Utah. Here is part one about the idea virus and part two about contagiousness and closure.]