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MedUni Vienna study shows prevention of suicides due to media

(Vienna, 14 September 2010) It has long been known that some suicide reports can trigger further suicides (copycat suicides or emulation suicides), due to so-called imitation effects. In a recently published study a team of researchers of MedUni Vienna has now been able to prove for the first time that the opposite effect can also occur.

The imitation effect after reports about suicides is called the Werther effect, which goes back to some cases of imitation suicides following publication of Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" in 1774. A team of researchers at the Centre of Public Health of the Medical University of Vienna has now empirically proven this effect in a study by characterising reports that are accompanied by significant changes of suicide rates. This analysis has also had another highly remarkable result: not all reports about suicide seem to be a potential risk; instead researchers also found a category of reports that may protect against suicide.

In the study, which has now also been published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and was co-financed by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the team of researchers headed by University Lecturer Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler showed that reports about affected people who were able to tackle crisis situations constructively and without any suicidal behaviour were associated with a reduction of suicide rates in the week following publication of the article. This effect was most pronounced in those regions where the reports were read by many people.

"Such a preventive effect has been discussed among experts for some time but no related empirical studies had been conducted so far. If it is the case - and we can now be assured of this without any doubt - that some sensational reports about suicides can trigger more suicides that would not have been committed without media reports, it is also plausible to assume that other reports which show how people are able to constructively tackle a crisis in which suicidality also plays a role can help prevent suicides," explains Niederkrotenthaler. "And we have now found empirical evidence for this effect."

Based on when Papageno overcomes a suicidal crisis in Mozart's "Magic Flute" (in which Papageno makes intensive plans and preparations for suicide when he fears the loss of his beloved Papagena; at the last minute, however, he is convinced by the Three Boys that he has the powers to win over Papagena), the team of researchers called the effect that occurs here the "Papageno effect".

Findings regarding the effects of media reports therefore take on a new dimension: "Apart from the Werther effect, there might also be a suicide-preventive Papageno effect of media reporting. It depends on what is made of it – this also seems to apply for how media reports about suicidality are written," explains Niederkrotenthaler. "Without any doubt further scientific work is needed to examine the basis of evidence for the Papageno effect, which has now been described for the first time, but there seems to be a clear new direction for establishing a hypothesis: media reports can prevent suicides as well as trigger them. It is certainly a journalistic challenge to work out this positive effect on the population in suicide reporting, but this is undoubtedly of major importance for suicide prevention," Niederkrotenthaler says in conclusion.


Short biography:
University Lecturer Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, born in 1978, finished his medical studies at MedUni Vienna in 2005. Between 2006 and 2009 he received a DOC-team scholarship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences for interdisciplinary research and completed the PhD programme in Mental Health and Behavioural Medicine at MedUni Vienna, from 2007 to 2009 he also graduated as a Master in Public Health Sciences (so-called Master in Suicide Prevention) at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. Since 2010 Niederkrotenthaler has worked as a University Assistant at the Centre of Public Health (Division of General and Family Medicine) of MedUni Vienna.
As well as his top-5 published original works as leading author so far (specialising in public health) Niederkrotenthaler is also co-author of numerous publications and is co-chairman of the Media & Suicide Task Force of the International Association of Suicide Prevention (IASP).
In addition he is a founding member of the Wiener Werkstaette for Suicide Research (www.suizidforschung.at), an interdisciplinary group of researchers including more than 20 junior and senior scientists who work on biological, social, psychological and cultural issues regarding suicide and suicide prevention. His tasks also cover cooperation in the development and implementation of the Austrian suicide prevention scheme.


» Current publication in the British Journal of Psychiatry:
The role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide-Werther versus Papageno effects.
Niederkrotenthaler T, Voracek M, Herberth A, Till B, Strauss M, Etzersdorfer E, Eisenwort B, Sonneck G. BJP 2010; 197:234-243.

» Current media guidelines for reporting on suicide (German, PDF)