On the occasion of the World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), Quantum of Science brings you a translation of this article, published earlier this year  as part of the Independent Media Empowerment Program (IMEP) grants scheme.
Bojan Šošić, Dipl.-Psych.
Over the last few months, media titles about various cases of suicide have been piling up across Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of these cases have garnered increased attention since they referred to young people taking their lives. It almost appears as another form of demographic changes that this country is going through – an even more gloomy one than the definitive departures of the young to other, at least this-worldly regions. Recently several cases captured the interest of media worldwide: those of a sister of a princess, a designer, a chef.
Several years ago, I was on a business trip to Mostar and when I came back to Sarajevo where I had lived at the time, I learned that an unknown young man had plunged to death. He did so from the exact story in the skyscraper where my apartment was. Several years later, another man, who also hadn’t lived in that building, chose the very same skyscraper for the last moments of his life. Suicides have served as an everlasting hot topic in the domain of mental health.
Perhaps it is expected that public promotion of science follows the latest findings, but sometimes it may be justified to give the premium to what is considered a classic in the given field. An idea that suicide in part takes form as an outcome of some sort of an imitation (especially with regard to the method) is no novelty. The phenomenon itself was actually well known in ancient Greece. Towards the end of the 18th century it became known as the Werther effect, after Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, that had already been occasionally banned in some parts of the world after it became apparent that the number of suicides among its readers was on the rise.
An analysis [1] published in 1994, added to the arguments that the changes in ways how the media report on suicides probably brought on a significant reduction in the number of cases committed in the Viennese subway.
Number of committed and attempted suicides in the Viennese Subway (1980-1992); graph from tabulated data
The image says enough. Of course, what is perfectly clear to everyone who deals with such issues professionally, is the impossibility to rule out the option that the total number of cases of suicide is not actually reduced, since it may happen that there is some sort of compensation by choosing other methods. But the message is clear. The one that served as a motive for passing a set of guidelines about how suicide cases should be reported, and that was the assumption – backed by this study – that the way of reporting can contribute to someone making a decision to take one’s life. That includes romantic portrayals (unrequited love), simplifications (reducing all reasons to a single one), unexpectedness (in the cases of celebrities this appears in contrast to the seemingly optimal conditions of life), but also formal characteristics of the report – whether it was a cover story, in large print, with a photo, etc.
Of course, it is nobody’s intention to accuse the journalists of contributing to the spread of practice of suicides. This also applied to the Austrian guidelines. Finally, it is the overall image of the media that is going through a transition, and both real and fictional suicides – as in Goethe’s novel – are being portrayed. Examples can be found in popular music, but also, perhaps even more so, in classical music, in the operas.
Another example serves as a clear illustration in our understanding of this phenomenon, and it gives hope that the media can actually be utilized for prevention. Thanks to the pressure exerted by the experts, the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994. has been more or less uniformly depicted in a way that could be summarized as: great artist, good music, a stupid and meaningless act; don’t follow his lead, but rather seek professional help. A commemorative service had the director of the Seattle Crisis Center give concluding words [2], and his message was largely conveyed by various media.
The first wave of reform of mental health services in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996-2000), involved training for journalists on how to report about cases of suicide. However, editorial policies, and the rule of the market, probably did not contrive to reflect on the journalistic practice well enough. Certainly, there had been a change in ways of communicating with the public, so this also brings about the need to revise these approaches when it comes to reporting about suicides. On the other hand, although there are no services (apart from the emergency rooms, mostly in public health centers) that might react to suicide attempts throughout the day – 24/7, this country still has a large number of professional services, ranging from community mental health centers (which also operate as part of public health centers) to various non-governmental organizations that are devoted to promotion of mental health.
[1] Sonneck, G., Etzersdorfer, E. & Nagel-Kuess, S. (1994). Imitative suicide on the Viennese subway. Social Science & Medicine, 38(3), pp. 453-457.
[2] Berman, A. L., Jobes, D. A., & O’Carroll, P. (1998). The Aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s Suicide. In – De Leo, D., Schmidtke, A. & Diekstra, R.F.W. (eds.), Suicide prevention (pp. 139-143). Kluwer Academic Publishers, New York and Dordrecht.

Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.