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Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Werther Effect

     Sociologists studying the media and the cultural contagion of suicidal behaviors were the first to recognize the copycat effect. In 1974, University of California at San Diego sociologist David P. Phillips coined the phrase Werther Effect to describe the copycat phenomenon. The name Werther comes from the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of Faust. In the story, the youthful character Werther falls in love with a woman who is promised to another. Always melodramatic, Werther decides that his life cannot go on and that his love is lost. He then dresses in boots, a blue coat, and a yellow vest, sits at his desk with an open book, and, literally at the eleventh hour, shoots himself. In the years that followed, throughout Europe, so many young men shot themselves while dressed as Werther and seated at their writing desks with an open copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in front of them that the book was banned in Italy, Germany, and Denmark.

     Though an awareness of this phenomenon has been around for centuries, Phillips was the first to conduct formal studies suggesting that the Werther Effect was, indeed, a reality--that massive media attention and the retelling of the specific details of a suicide (or, in some cases, untimely deaths) could increase the number of suicides.

     The August 1962 suicide of Marilyn Monroe presents a classic modern-day example of the Werner Effect. In the month that followed it, 197 individual suicides--mostly of young blond women--appear to have used the Hollywood star's suicide as a model for their own. The overall suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 12 percent for the month after the news of Monroe's suicide. But, as Phillips and others discovered, there was no corresponding decrease in suicides after the increase from the Marilyn Monroe-effect suicides. In other words, the star's suicide actually appeared to have caused a whole population of vulnerable individuals to complete their own deaths, over and above what would be normally expected. This is the copycat effect working with a vengeance.

Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect, 2004


  1. Mental health issues, depression & suicide(s) that stem from feelings of self worth, trauma and a loss of hope can be a mountain for a person to climb, particularly alone. It is a subject seldom addressed in any formal manner in the past and when it suddenly sneaks up on an individual there is no 'I know what to do' information base to draw from. Education is always the first step in solving problems.

    Stigmas need be removed and tools to listen and respond made available. It is our mission to help whenever possible.

    Awareness must come in a classroom and seeded into young minds to dampen the Copycat Effect and the hurdles to be mastered.

  2. Copycat methods - in recent years, suicide by jumping in front of trains has increased in the Philadelphia area. This probably started with some girls who jumped in front of an Amtrak train south of the city in 2010. This got a lot of press coverage. More recently, rail suicide has not been "glorified" in the local press.