There is evidence that publishing the details of high profile suicides increases the number of copycat suicides. With this in mind, are editors then guilty of manslaughter when they publish such stories?
No? Well what if I told you that this evidence is highly localised and that the sphere of geographic influence is very specific to the area of increased deaths. The area over which a given newspaper sells correlates very closely to the geographic area in which the spike in the statistics occur?
Still not convinced, then what if I also told you that there is evidence that an increase in car accidents, train accidents and air flight accidents also correlate with these stories? Surely not related… However it has been postulated that these are nothing more than “hidden” suicides. That is suicides where the perpetrator has tried to hide the fact that it is a suicide, either for reasons of shame or simply to allow their loved ones left behind to still be the beneficiary of any life policy that may be in place.
The statistical evidence is difficult to refute, the interpretation however is another matter. While no one has been able to come up with a better explanation, at least not one that has been widely published, the case is compelling.
Nor is this a new discovery. In the kate 1700s a novel (The Sorrows of Young Man Werther) where the protagonist commits suicide as a result of spurned love, was banned in many European countries as it was thought responsible for copycat suicides in such places as Italy, Leipzig, and Copenhagen (http://jech.bmj.com/content/57/4/238)
There is the argument that all this does is hasten the decision of those already considering suicide, but again there is strong evidence to the contrary. After the spike in additional deaths, the average returns to the mean, that is it does not dip lower than the average (what a horrible and dehumanising word to use here that hides the scale of personal disaster each of these represents for each family, but please, it is used in a purely statistical sense here) so there is no adjusting after to counter the balance. These are apparently, and tragically, suicides that may never have happened.
Therefore, all this considered, can the reporting (and yes the autocorrect attempt by my iPad here to “reposting” is appropriate as well for once) be justified if there is even a little evidence that it may have an adverse affect on those of us vulnerable to such thoughts?
How better can this be handled? Is there a better way to serve the greater good of public information and free speech without putting those who are vulnerable at risk?
If the reporting has nothing to contribute to the situation it is simply not permitted?
If the reporting of such matters is simply banned outright?
If the positioning of these reports is reviewed such that it is buried in the newspaper in a control group area of distribution to see what the effect this has?
But this only deals with physical newsprint, in which one can decide to print and distribute, or otherwise. This report was published back when newspapers wee the primary means of news distribution. What effect does the modern means of “publish and be damned” of the Internet is taken into account? Here there can be no narrowing of geographic boundaries. No resection of this effect to just the area of distribution of the newsprint the following morning?
It is trite to say the Internet knows no geographic boundaries as much as it is a statement of the obvious that there can be no boundaries either on the opinion it gives voice to. Yes some can shout louder than others, but if the message chimes the right note, then there is no stopping this same message from reaching almost all ears.
If we accept the fact that the news cannot be controlled, irrespective of any altruistic wish to do so, then what is the solution?
Calls for greater awareness ring as hollow as the politicians statement after a terrorist atrocity that this can never be allowed to happen again… Blah blah.
It is here that the small powerful nudges may come into play. What can the “freak” economists teach us? What small but carefully researched, planned and executed evidence based tweaks to our society offer us?
There are many possible ways of adjusting our thoughts on suicide for the better or worse, but surely it must start by facing the vulnerability we all face? Either intimately or through personal association with those that have been affected.
The evidence presented in “Influence” and the research it references, is as compelling as it is uncomfortable. This is because it points to a fringe, or perhaps an element of the mainstream, in our society that operate “normally” day to day but never more than a small poorly timed nudge that takes them along a course that otherwise may not have ever occurred.
It opens us up to vulnerabilities that we simply do not wish to think about and therefore easier to simply ignore. Ignore the evidence, ignore the fact that we are so easily influenced by what goes on around us, as a whole.
But… We all have our breaking point. For some it is loss of a partner, others it is the loss of a child and yet others it may be their ability to look after their family, or themselves. Personal disability and loss of dignity fears leave many with pre-paid tickets to Switzerland…
Take the example of a German Adolf Merckle, a german pharmaceutical group owner whose fortune went from 9 billion to 6 billion after his companies suffered losses in the 2008/9 financial crisis (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/recession/4210246/Adolf-Merckle-what-made-this-German-billionaire-commit-suicide.html). He was by no means broke nor, it seems, was he overly ostentatious in his lifestyle or use of money. What sort of personal demons would force a man to take such a move. What sort of pressure was he facing that meant that even having wealth beyond the wildest dreams of most of us, he still felt the need to take his own life.
Personal fulfilment is a goal that if attained can surmount this. We perhaps all need a different means of keeping score… Warren buffet, one of the richest men in the world and has pledged to give away his vast fortune, used the earning of money to “keep score and see how well he was doing” but the difference here, his keeping score was with no one but himself. A way of marking his progress almost as an intellectual excercise, not a way of comparing with others. Perhaps the only person we should compete with is ourselves….