Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Werther Effect

The US's homicide rate is half that of our suicide rate. Suicides are not big news so we generally don't hear about them unless it is someone famous or someone you know committing it.  If you look at all the stats of American suicides, the typical  suicide would be a 75 year old white man who is unemployed.  Men usually commit suicide with guns while women use some sort of poison or drugs.  Because of this, men are more successful and the numbers skew towards them.  Black people are much more likely to die in a homicide than suicide; for whites, the opposite is true. Some suicidologists (sociologists that specialize in suicide) theorize that African Americans have many external factors that they can blame for their depression (institutional racism, urban crime, etc.), while most Caucasians have mostly internal factors.  The idea persists in the American society that if you are white and unsuccessful, then you only have yourself to blame.  Oddly enough, nations where life is easier and there is more opportunity, like the US, have higher suicide rates than where life is miserable.  The US, Japan and Germany have consistently high suicide rates. Perhaps spending most of the day trying to find food or water prevents you from reflecting on how miserable you actually are.

Suicide numbers spike after a famous person commits suicide.  Not only do they spike, but they spike for people who seem to have a lot in common with the person who died.  For example, a lot of young blonde women committed suicide after Marilyn Monroe offed herself.  The month she died there were 200 more suicides in the US than any other August in that era. This is called the Werther Effect. It gets its name from the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.  This is an 18th century German novel where the protagonist, Werther, kills himself after a long period of unrequited love.  After its publication, a slew of copycat suicides followed committed by young men in the same method as Werther in the novel with a pistol to the head.  You might see this as the beginning of blaming the media for suicide.  Does the media or a novel or a heavy metal song plant the idea of suicide in the person's head?  No, of course not.  The idea is probably already there and when someone they idolize or admire kills themselves it may just act as permission being granted.  

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