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Mimesis and Suicide: A Review and Suggestions for Future Research. Dr. Steven Stack, PhD* Director, Center for the Study of Suicide, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, & Department of Criminology, Wayne State University, Detroit, USA
Dr. Steven Stack, PhD*
Director, Center for the Study of Suicide, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, & Department of Criminology, Wayne State University, Detroit, USA
Conference on Mimetic Factors & Health, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. October 14-15,2009
PART I. Key Theoretical Propositions on Media Effects on Suicide(A) Basic Dose-Response (B) Symbolic Inter-actionism( C) Social Learning Theory
Dangerous Stories and Receptive Audience Characteristics
Proposition 1. All else being equal, the greater the coverage (e.g., column inches, seconds of TV news, number of networks or newspapers carrying the story) of a suicide story, the greater the copycat effect.
Proposition 2. The greater the priority of coverage (e.g., page 1, lead story in TV news) the greater the copycat effect.
However, The characteristics of the stories and the audience also need substantial consideration as providing moderators between sheer amount of coverage and copycat effects.
Sub proposition, yet untested,
Movies where the lead star suicides will generate more copycat suicides than movies where a minor character suicides.
Movies where the motives for suicide are presented in detail will promote more copycat effects than heir counterparts
e.g., Major Depression
Youth more impulsive
Positive Definitions of Suicide may include:
Social Rationalizations or motives for suicide including ill health, marital trouble, job loss, romantic strains
Individual Rationalizations including suicide as a implied solution to a battle with life long battle with depression, substance abuse
Perceived Rewards. If suicidal persons desire to hurt significant others, grieving relatives of suicide might comprise a “reward” for the behavior.
Focus on the positive aspects of victim’s life- e.g., attractive photo, high school sports hero, honor student, father of 4, wealthy person.
Glorification of Deceased- e.g., fly the school flag at half mast
Long Term and sensational coverage- captures attention, attention getting.
Negative Definitions of Suicide include:
Proposition 7. Persons will be more apt to copy the behavior of others like themselves than persons unlike themselves.
Dimensions of horizontal identification may include:
Research findings based on television news stories on suicide are 79% less apt to report an imitative effect than ones based on newspaper stories..
Relates to the amount of coverage. TV stories usually last less then 20 seconds, can go unnoticed, easily forgotten. Newspaper stories are much longer.
Also, Newspaper stories, unlike TV ones, can be easily saved, & re-read.
Research based on real suicide stories (as opposed to fictional stories) was 4.03 times more likely to report a copycat effect than research based on fictional suicides such as those in movies.
There is a general agreement that research based on real suicide stories is more apt to report copycat effects than research based on make-believe or fictional stories (e.g., suicide in movies & soap operas). Gould, M. 2001. “Suicide and Media,” Annals of the NY Academy of Science. Pirkis & Blood 2001a. “Suicide & the Media Part I, Crisis. Pirkis & Blood 2001b. “Suicide & the Media Part II, Crisis. Schmidtke & Schaller (2000) “Role of the mass media in suicide prevention,” Int’l Handbook. of Suicide & Suicide Prevention, NY: John Wiley.
However, this finding may be a function of poor measurement of exposure to fictional media such as film. The measurement of cumulative exposure to films containing suicides of stars has not been measured.
META ANALYSIS II: 55 Studies on Non Fictional StoriesStack, S. 2005. Suicide in the Media: A Quantitative Review of Studies Based on Nonfictional Stories. Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior. 35,2 121-132.
Similar methodology to Stack (2000)
Expands sample of studies focused on non fictional (REAL) suicides from 28 in Stack (2000) to 55.
Findings based on televised suicide stories were 79% less likely than findings based on newspaper stories to report a copycat effect.
Page 1 newspaper articles are longer, have more detail. Can be easily re-read and copies easily saved for future reference.
TV coverage typically last about 10 seconds.
Some evidence that research based on one network coverage (as opposed to multiple network coverage that reaches a larger audience) has no impact at all on suicide rates.
META ANALSYSIS III 26 Studies on Fictional Stories (e.g., Movies)Stack, S. 2009. Copycat effects of fictional suicide: A Meta Analysis. Chapter 17 in Stack, S & Lester, D. (eds), Suicide and the Creative Arts. NY: Nova Science. Expands analysis in Stack (2000) from 14 to 26 investigations.26 studies contain 146 findings.
Studies that matched the method of suicide in
the role model (usually an actor in a movie)
with that of the audience were 4.4 more
times apt to report a copycat effect than
Studies that did not do so.
It is often not clear if the model’s suicide
Had a significant effect on suicides by other
Possibly there was no overall increase in suicide
But a transference in methods.
However, at the aggregate level, Jamieson (2003) reports that
the Number of suicides in film/year explained the upswing in
Overall youth suicide between 1950-2000.
Jamieson, P. 2003 Changes in US Popular Culture Portrayal
of Youth Suicide, 1950-2000. PhD dissertation. Philadelphia:
Tip: Suicide of super star Bruce Willis, Sin City (2005)
An Unstudied image
Guidelines have been disseminated by many organizations including WHO, CDC, AFSP, & AAS (e.g., Satcher, 2001, National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, 106-111).
Cross sectional research at one point in time often suggests a gap between elements of the guidelines and actual press coverage.
An Australian study of 410 press reports determined that only 6.5% provided information on where to seek help, e.g., suicide hotline number as recommended in WHO (2008) guideline #10 (Pirkis 2002).
A Swiss study explored the impact of a 1992 press conference between the media, Swiss Medical Association, & Suicidologists. The media were urged to follow Guidelines for reporting suicide. (Michel, Frey, Wyss & Valch 2000, “An Exercise in Improving Suicide News Reporting in the Media,” Crisis, 21:71-79).
Percent of stories containing presumed dangerous content before (1991) & after (1994) Dissemination of Media Guidelines, Switzerland(Michel et al., 2000)
Australia: Degree of Compliance of the Australian Media with WHO Media Guidelines (Pirkis et al 2002. Reporting of Suicide in the Australian media. (Australian & New Zealand J of Psychiatry, 36, 190-197).
It is widely believed that the type of presentation of suicide in news stories influences the incidence of copycat suicide.
However, only one previous rigorous study to date tests associations between selected aspects of media guidelines and copycat suicide (Phillips, David P., Carstensen, L. & Paight, D., 1989 “Effects of mass media news stories on suicide with new evidence on story content,” Pp. 101-116 in Peiffer, Cynthia (ed), Suicide Among Youth: Perspectives on Risk & Prevention. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
(a) Cumulative Non laboratory Exposure Index: Example of Smoking Initiation Research & Film
(b) Motive-Identification & Feature Films
(c) Long Term Mimesis Effects: Deer Hunter
(d) What explains the Variation in Compliance with Media Guidelines?
(e) Large Sample Aggregate Level Research: little since 1990’s
(f) Work on the elderly as a vulnerable group
(g) Suicide in Popular World Literature and Copycat Effects
(h) Age/Gender matching of model and Audience
Terminal Illness: John Wayne, suicide by outlaw, The Shootist (1976)
Psychiatric/addiction Kris Kristofferson, A Star is Born. (1976)
Death/grieving: Ben Kingsley, House of Sand & Fog (2004)
Psychiatric/ ThePsychopath: James Cagney White Heat (1949)
Economic Strain: John Travolta, Mad City (1997)
Social strain, Rejection in Love, Officer & a Gentleman (1973)
Altruism: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino (2008)
Altruism: Bruce Willis, Sin City (2005)
An overtime investigation of 4,655 adolescents determined that the greater the exposure to movies with drinking (from a list of 600 popular movies), the greater the odds of initiation of drinking by follow up, controlling for sex, personality characteristics, parenting style, and other covariates, school performance, and parental socio-economic status (Sargent, et al, 2006, “Alcohol use in motion pictures and its relation with early onset teen drinking,” J of Studies of Alcohol, 67:54-65).
Essentially all 120 plus studies on mimesis and suicide explore just one media modality either the news papers, or television news, or film, or a book, or music.
Research is needed that uses a multimedia measure of suicide exposure in the media.
It is possible that research focusing on just one type of media may underestimate the full impact of media exposure as a whole.
Individual level work could survey youth, and other age groups, on their past exposure to suicide in a variety of media and the extent to which these exposures have influenced them. Descriptive, preferably exhaustive, lists of key examples of suicide in film (top 50/year), music (top 50/year), books (read in school curriculums), and other media are needed as a first step in such research. Some such lists are reviewed in Stack and Lester (2009) Suicide and the Creative Arts, New York: Nova Science.