Suicide and the Werther Effect: A Message from the Edge
At the close of September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I learned that suicide rates peak when a celebrity commits suicide. Reviewing posts on social media researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found “increased suicidal ideation” after the suicide of 10 famous individuals. The increase in suicide after media coverage of suicide, reading about others’ suicide, or the suicide of a close friend or family member is referred to as the Werther effect.
My only awareness of the Werther effect up until this point was the 1988 dark comedy “Heathers,” in which students began killing themselves after the most popular girl in school allegedly did so. When one student survived a suicide attempt, a popular girl said, “Another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people of the school and failing miserably.” The movie is meant to be absurd so of course I assumed the Werther effect was fictional. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I can remember. My first suicide attempt was at age 12. I cannot describe the feeling of disappointment that I was faced with when I took handfuls of painkillers and still woke up in the morning. I tried again and again.
I finally entered therapy, journaled furiously, and made some progress. It took many years to stop self-harming. For some reason, cutting seemed to be a sadness “management technique” rather than the self-destructive maladaptation it was.
Of course, it’s always a work in progress. I thought of myself as a worthless void for the majority of my life. Trauma is to blame for that, but trauma notwithstanding, I had to consciously rearrange everything just to see my strengths or to feel satisfied with being in my own skin. Even if I made a list all my favorite things about me, I still would have to unify those things with my identity — I still can’t see that that’s me.
If there is one thing that I am sure of in my relatively short life, it’s that I’m thankful I woke up. I am thankful that I wasn’t successful in killing myself. I am thankful that I put the gun back in the garage where I found it. I’m grateful for all the times I put on the comedy special and forgot to actively hate myself for a while. I’m glad I waited a little longer and a little longer still.
I recently donated money to a children’s charity that asked what message I wanted to post on their “giving wall.” The only message I can think of is an inalienable truth that we too often forget: You are worth it.
The message for those considering suicide is also the same: You are worthy of life. You’re worthy of happiness. You are absolutely worth it.
In May of 2013, my childhood friend Don stepped off the Williamsburg Bridge. He was an amazing person. He was funny, vibrant, and eclectic. He was creative and full of wonder. His presence literally filled me with joy and made me feel like a kid again. I loved the way he thought about the world, and he was one of the only people who made me optimistic about life itself. I had no idea that he was struggling with suicidal thoughts. I was blindsided when he committed suicide. If it weren’t for the note he left, I may not have believed it at all.
In the months that followed, all of his friends and family would finally become acquainted with this terrible sadness that took Don away from us. It was mysterious and unfounded. And I wish every day that I had told him how important he was to me.
I promise you that you are someone’s Don. You are not alone.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
Suicide prevention concept image available from Shutterstock
Newman, S. (2018). Suicide and the Werther Effect: A Message from the Edge. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/suicide-and-the-werther-effect-a-message-from-the-edge/