One of the first known media portrayals surrounding the depiction of suicide and mental health issues is the novel ‘Sorrows of a Young Werther’ written by Johann Goethe, in which the main character dies by suicide after heartbreak. The novel is mostly a series of letters written by Werther to a friend after his passing, explaining the reasons he ended his life. David Phillips later coined the term ‘The Werther effect’ which is defined as a suggestion and imitation model, due to the widespread public fear surrounding the novel after it was published.
“it was said that people in many countries imitated Werther’s manner of death. According to Goethe, “My friends.. .thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in my case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public ” (Goethe, quoted in Rose, 1«29.XXIV.)” (Phillips 1974)
This public fear grew, and the book was eventually banned in various European countries. Years after the novel was banned many studies were conducted to see if that book was the reasons for increased national suicide levels. There are strong connections here to the media effects model (Although this article explores the backwards nature of the model and the relationship between violent acts on tv and whether or not it is triggering this in children as learned behaviour (Guantlett 1998), we have the same distinction between learned behaviour through media and the desensitisation of constantly being exposed to these graphic images.).the imitation of acts displayed on the screen to be subconsciously learned, then action in day to day life due to the desensitisation of it on screen.
The widespread concerns that the novel caused are very similar to that of 13 Reasons why (see the previous blog post.) Social media has been the main source of conversations reacting to the series. The negative feedback is all similar in that people fear that it perpetuates suicidal thoughts in impressionable and vulnerable adolescents who have access to the show. Similar public fears are seen here as there were with ‘Sorrows of a Young Werther’. Hittner (2015) explores and challenges the Werther effect “An important premise of the Werther effect is that imitative suicides are expected to increase in fairly direct proportion to the quantity of media publicity given to individuals who die by suicide.” (Hittner 2015, p.1)
Jessie Stephens wrote a blog post in Mama Mia along with a podcast “Laura Brodnik, Tiffany Dunk and I argue about whether 13 Reasons Why is powerful or problematic, on the latest episode of The Binge.” podcast: https://omny.fm/shows/the-binge/is-13-reasons-why-helpful-or-dangerous. that discusses the ethical issues surrounding the series, and one of the main points is that it causes copycat effects directly linking it to the Werther effect. It highlights how much people are divided on the TV show and having these polarising views both with strong evidence shows how controversial the topics are.
The censorship and control we see when Goethe wrote his novel are still prevalent today. One of Australias regulative initiatives; Mind frame “provides access to up-to-date, evidence-based information to support the reporting, portrayal and communication about suicide and mental illness.” (Hunter Institute of Mental Health. (2012) It aims to prevent any unethical portrayals of mental health, however, in Netflix’s case it was not aired on Australian television, which makes it harder to monitor and control what we are viewing in entertainment media. “The basic question of why the media should induce people to imitate its content has never been adequately tackled, beyond the simple idea that particular actions are ‘glamorised’.” (Gauntlet, D 1998) The same issues are discussed in Mind frames structure to creatively share information about mental health issues and suicide.
“Handled well, storylines involving mental illness provide an opportunity for sensitive, engaging and powerful material. Handled poorly, storylines can have harmful effects, perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness and reducing the likelihood that those with mental illness will seek appropriate help.” (Hunter Institute of Mental Health, 2012)