Hurting like the ones on TV
A new DFG-funded project at LMU sets out to analyze the impact of media content on people who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.
Several independent studies have concluded that media reporting of suicides can induce particularly labile individuals to take their own lives. The phenomenon is often referred to as the “Werther effect” after the hero of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s famous epistolary novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, whose fate is reputed to have triggered a wave of copycat suicides throughout Europe.
A new research project, which has just begun at LMU Munich, will attempt to elucidate the complex links between media use, psychological illness and suicidal tendencies. The study got underway this month at the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research (IfKW) at LMU, and its theme is encapsulated in its title: “Beyond the Werther Effect: The Significance of the Media in the Context of Depressive Illness and Suicidal Behavior”.
“Research in this field has so far concentrated on the immediate copycat effect of media reports of cases of suicide,” says project leader Professor Carsten Reinemann from the IfKW. “We wish to extend this perspective further. First of all, we want to focus more on predisposing factors, such as severe depression or suicidal thoughts, which presumably have a strong influence on one’s reactions to stories in the media about real suicides. Secondly, we will look at the effects of media content that is not explicitly concerned with suicide as such, but can be assumed to have an impact on the individual consumer’s mood and perception of reality.” The project will make use of representative population surveys to explore these phenomena.
My friend the computer
Media arouse emotions in all users and affect their perceptions of reality. “Reports on issues such as the crime rate or climate change can stimulate anxiety, stories about models can awaken doubts about one’s own attractiveness, live broadcasts of matches in the Champions League can activate states of total euphoria,” Carsten Reinemann points out. The project will try to determine whether people who suffer from mood disorders or other mental illnesses tend to make use of media as a substitute for direct social contacts, as this could be expected to strengthen the impact of the information and experiences they encounter there. This media content could reinforce a distorted perception of one’s self and one’s environment or, alternatively, help one to overcome personal crises. In light of the increasing role that online media play in the everyday lives of young people today, the project will also consider the effects of online networks.
The researchers hope to gain further insight into the significance of media and media use in the context of depressive illness, but this is not their only goal. “In addition, we are interested in learning more about how depression, for instance, modulates perceptions of and reactions to media content. That would help us to arrive at a definition of the conditions that promote or inhibit copycat suicides,” Reinemann says. nh