Echoes of the TV series “13 reasons why” release: an ongoing scientific debate.

13 Reasons Why is an American web television series, based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher. The story revolves around an high school student and his friend, Hannah Baker, a girl who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by selected individuals at her school. A box of cassettes recorded by the main character details thirteen reasons why she ended her life.

Ayers at al. published on July 31, 2017 a Research Letter on JAMA, describing his study on how internet searches for suicides changed, both in and content, after the series’ release. Using Google Trends the Authors applied a “quasi-experimental approach”, comparing internet search volumes after the premiere of the TV series, with expected search volumes if the series had never been released. In the end, it is unclear whether any internet query preceded an actual self-harm attempt. Results and conclusions of their analyses suggest that 13 Reasons Why, in its present form, may have both increased suicide awareness while unintentionally increasing suicidal ideation.

It is widely acknowledge in the literature that the negative effects of TV shows, such as the one in question, could be avoided following the WHO’s media guidelines for preventing suicide, which suggest to remove explicit scenes and to include suicide hotline numbers in each episode. On July 31, in an Editorial published on JAMA Editorial, Kimberly H. et al. state that, considering the strong audience response to the mentioned TV series, it is probable that others may be encouraged to produce similar shows. Furthermore new patterns of utilization of TV series such as “binge watching” increase the emotional impact and immersion into the story. This makes more urgent the application of preventive screening strategies.

Ungar et al. (2017) argued that international guidance on suicide and media should be strenghtned, implemented and enforced; proposing a “human centered design”, encouraging viewers to seek help for mental health problems supported by their study evidence that the “edutainment” design works for prevention.

On the contrary, Scalvini and Rigamonti published a Letter on the BMJ in October 2017, affirming that fictions such as 13 Reasons why may be a starting point for inspiring dialogue between adolescents and their main role model, parents, educators and therapists, and not delegate educational roles to the media which should not be censored. These Authors suggest that such shows could be used to demand the  government investing more in mental health services for young people.

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The Origin of the Werther Effect

Media coverage of suicide is now well known to have a significant influence on suicide epidemiology. This influence is supposed to result from two opposite effects, the Werther and the Papageno effect (to know more about Papageno, click here).

The “Werther effect” refers to the increase of suicide rates following the publication of a suicide story, just as it happened after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther (original title Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1774. The publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther had several effects: at the individual level, it turned 24-years old Goethe into a celebrated author. From a socio-cultural standpoint, it started the phenomenon known as the “Werther Fever”. The Werther Fever encompassed harmless behaviors, such as having young European men adopting Werther’s clothing style, as well as life-threatening ones, leading to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an autobiographic novel, and is considered the most important manifesto of the Sturm und Drang, a literary movement developed in Germany between 1770 and 1785, which preannouced and influenced the later Romantic movement. The Sturm und Drang movement included eminent authors such as Schiller and Klinger, and had as main topic the exaltation of the primordial and authentic human being spirit, ruled by the restless search for an absolute freedom, and intolerant to any constriction. These characteristics were developed by the young German writers in contrast to the French Neoclassicism and its rules, which were considered retrictive and mortifying for the Artist.

In the context of this cultural movement, Goethe developed the theme of the human incapacity to control passions and of the consequent social discomfort, bringing to life one of the most famous characters of world literature: Young Werther.

The plot is well known: the novel, throughout the letters collected by his friend Wilhelm and the fake Editor’s notes, narrates about Werther, a young artist of passionate and sensitive temperament. He moves to the fictional village of Walheim in order to arrange some business and dedicate himself to Classical studies. One night, during a party, he is introduced to a young beautiful woman, Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert, eleven year her senior. Despite knowing about Charlotte’s condition, Werther falls in love with her, cultivating a close and suffering friendship. His sorrow eventually becomes so unbearable that he is forced to leave Walheim for Weimar at an embassy. But for such a spontaneous and passionate personality, as Werther’s, it is impossible to fit the sterile and cold environment typical of the high society classes, therefore he decides to go back home. However, also there the young man can’t find peace: he is assaulted by nostalgia and memories of Walheim. The sudden news of Albert and Charlotte’s marriage further destabilizes him. Disheartened and growing more and more sullen everyday, Werther decides to return to Walheim, but this time his passion for the young woman is no longer concealed and becomes so clear that Charlotte herself, despite her attachement, asks him to be less demanding. One night, while Albert is absent, Werther impulsively kisses Charlotte, misunderstanding her feelings.  She, out of pity for her friend, and respecting her husband, decides that Werther must not visit her so frequently. This event is devastating for him, so after composing a farewell letter to be found after his death, he writes to Albert asking for his two guns, on the pretext that he is going “on a journey”. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not die until twelve hours later.

The disruptive effect of this work in late 17th century literature is due to its main character tragic end. This novel outlined a new character: the sensitive and passionate Hero. A man governed by instincts, who prefers indulging to his emotions rather than repressing them, a man who, because of this, experiences difficulties in his attempt of fitting into society. Werther loves nature, admires childhood spontaneity, and lazing into an ideal, unattainable and impossible love. In the novel, Werther’s character is counterposed to his alter-ego Albert: the bourgeois man, strong, rational, positive, but limited.

This two characters compare themselves one to the other also debating about suicide. In Albert’s opinion suicide is a sign of weakness and insanity; on the other hand, the Hero of Passions thinks that suicide discloses the absolute catharsis, a demonstration of the heroic courage proper of great men. Suicide is described by Werther as a proof of the strength of human being, who, oppressed by life unhappiness, is eventually able to perform a last titanic action, just like people rising up against a tyrant; like the man who succeeds in saving his belongings from his burning house; or like the warrior who is left alone on the battle field, but still fights against many enemies.

It seems like the sensitive Werther is trying to get the chance to demonstrate his belonging to this heroic slice of humanity. He was informed about Charlotte’s engagement even before knowing her, but still conscious of the impossibility of their love, chooses to indulge in his passion. The whole novel describes Werther’s descent into the abyss of depression, fostered by a feeling he can not avoid. Goethe tells his readers the already written destiny of his Hero, who has no other chance but the definitive escape from inevitable pain of his sensitive soul.

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Thanks to Matteo Savin

Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and Survivors of Suicide Loss

Chris Cornell was an American musician, singer, and songwriter, ex frontman of the Audioslave and Soundgarden; Wikipedia says that he is considered one of the chief architects of the 1990s grunge movement. He was found dead in his Detroit hotel room on May 18, 2017 after performing at a concert the night before; the cause of death was determined to be suicide by hanging and “drugs did not contribute” to the cause of death: only prescription medications were found in Cornell’s system.
Cornell publicly talked about his struggle with depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts several times throughout his life

Members of his family and numerous fans of the artist were impressed by her premature death;

Associated Press writes that the representative of the artist Brian Bumbery said that his death was “sudden and unexpected”. Cornell’s wife said, “When we spoke after the show, I noticed he was slurring his words; he was different. When he told me he may have taken an extra Ativan or two, I contacted security and asked that they check on him.”  
Touching is the letter written by his wife: “I’m sorry, my sweet love, that I did not see what happened to you that night,” she wrote. “I’m sorry you were alone, and I know that was not you, my sweet Christopher. Your children know that too, so you can rest in peace.”  
Several tributes and phrases have been dedicated to Cornell around the world as a sign of contempt for a friend, colleague and teacher.

The relationships between Cornell’s suicide and those of other rock singers is spontaneous and also with the dead of his close friend and colleague Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, that two months after Cornell’s death, on July 20, the day that would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday, hanged himself. Bennington was a close friend of Cornell’s: the two had performed together, Bennington was godfather to Cornell’s son Christopher, and  at Cornell’s funeral he sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Bennington’s family and bandmates said he had taken Cornell’s death very hard: “I can’t imagine a world without you in it,” he had written on Instagram upon hearing the news.

There are many reasons why someone commit suicide, but today we know that death by suicide devastates those left behind. “More than half of Americans personally know someone who has died by suicide, and we are all affected when a celebrity to whom we feel connected ends their life,” said Julie Cerel the President of American Association of Suicidology.
We call them “Survivors of Suicide Loss”, who are those who have lost a friend, a family member or someone they love to suicide. They are effectively at elevated risk for depression and suicide, and this is particularly true in important dates of those lost to suicide. Death by suicide stuns with soul-crushing surprise, leaving family and friends not only grieving the unexpected death, but confused and lost by this haunting loss. The underlying structure of grief for survivors of suicide loss appears complicated. It is further complicated by the societal perception that the act of suicide is a failure by the victim and the family to deal with some emotional issue and ultimately society affixes blame for the loss on the survivors. We can say that survivors should not expect that their lives will return to their prior state, they should adjust their life without their loved one.
Sometimes the individual or societal stigma introduces a unique stress on the bereavement process that in some cases requires clinical intervention.

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We often speak about the “Papageno effect”: but who is Papageno?

As many people might know, Papageno is a fictitious character that, being a protagonist of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, enjoyed an immortal fame.

Let’s take a closer look…

In Mozart’s Singspiel, firstly performed in 1791, Papageno is the funny counterpart of the noble prince Tamino: the braver is the latter, the more fearful is the former, the more austere is the one, the more the other enjoys his food, being driven by a lighthearted joie de vivre.
You can easily find in this character many traits of Hanswurst, the comic figure of the early 18th century’s Viennese comedy.
As Tamino faces dangers with the help of an airy sounding flute, Papageno carries a panflute.

But let’s look at him on the stage…

Right from the start, he shows himself as an odd character: announced by his own pipe, a birdcatcher appears, carrying a cage on his back and claiming he can camouflage himself thanks to a funny feathered costume. But soon he reveals his bragger’s nature: as prince Tamino comes round, he claims to be the killer of the monstrous snake menacing his life. But the three Ladies, maidservants of the Queen of the Night, immediately punish him, closing his mouth by a padlock. On condition that he follows the prince on his mission to free Pamina, Papageno obtains then the padlock to be removed and gets a set of magic bells.
And again another clownish scene: when Papageno finds Pamina harassed by the wicked blackamoor Monostatos, he manages to put the latter to flight not so much by virtue of his bravery as of his nutty look, specular to the jailor’s one. Both of them run away hotfoot, being frightened by each other. Left alone with Pamina, our character shows a deeper trait of his nature: his desire to meet a beautiful maiden who reciprocates his love acquires, thanks to the music of Mozart’s, a nobler and higher dimension.
And once again, Papageno stops Monostatos’ arrival, when the blackamoor tries and grab Pamina again, thanks to his magic bells.
Their sound produces a sudden metamorphosis in the jailor and his henchmen: in an instant they start singing and dancing happily, oblivious of their mission!
For a moment, the magic of music hauls them all in a heavenly place where love and happiness reign.

Immagine correlata

In the second part, then, Papageno will counterpoint, with his hesitations and grumbles, Tamino’s resolution facing the initiatory trials they must undergo.
Pamina herself, feeling avoided by them, is the first contemplating suicide, only detained by the arrival of the three child-spirits.
Then it’s Papageno’s turn: the scene of the attempted suicide, as E.J. Dent the musicologist remembered, was in reality a traditional Harlequin’s monologue in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.
He is saved by the three child-spirits, too: they remember him the magic power of the bells he was gifted at the start of the story.

And then finally Papageno meets the long desired Papagena!

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  • Edward J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas, Oxford University Press

Thanks to Claudio Verdina

The Blue Whale Game: what do we know about it?

Wikipedia says that the Blue Whale Game (Russian: Синий кит, Siniy kit) was born in 2013 as an unofficial community on a VKontakte Social Network, with the aim of achieving a sense of superiority administrators, who induce passive players to suffering and suicide.

The game is based on the relationship between the challengers (“players or participants”) and the administrators; it involves a series of self-harm duties given by the administrators that players must complete in 50 days and the last task is suicide.

It was probably created by Philipp Budeikin, a psychology student who was expelled from university; he said his purpose was to “clean” society by pushing to suicide those he deemed as having no value.

The first case of suicide related to the game occurred in 2015 in Russia.

The Blue Whale has received significant media attention: several posts and articles report that it likely has led dozens children and adolescents from Russia (as well as from other countries) on the way to suicide. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, albeit in an arbitrary manner, suggested a link between 130 suicides happened from fall 2015 to spring 2016, to this presumed digital brainwashing.

Anyway, actually we really don’t know either the game’s existence or its role in child and teenage suicides or acts of self-harm. reports that an investigation by the UK Safer Internet Centre has failed to corroborate the claims. Online fact-checking website Snopes found that, although there have been reports of young people committing suicide in Russia over the past six months, there is inconclusive evidence tying them to the Blue Whale. Professor Sonia Livingstone from the London School of Economics told WIRED: “The importance of media literacy to identify and reject fake news is vital for everyone, but especially for parents whose anxieties about their children’s safety make them too easily to fall prey to clickbait designed to trap them. The responsibilities of journalists to check their facts and sources has also never been so great, as the Blue Whale scare illustrates clearly.”

Nonetheless, the implications of the phenomenon are important, at least from the sociological point of view, no matter if it is a false news or it is proven in some cases. Blue Whale phenomenon began in Russia, where the problem of adolescent suicide is widely acknowledged (in 2012, the rate of teenage suicides in Russia was three times higher than the world average), but now it has gone far beyond. Even if it was a fake, it may still be damaging. Every alarming news, every service that drives the macabre storytelling, every act of self-harm and violence automatically may fuel a vicious cycle of suggestion and discomfort. It is important to protect children from online dangers and also let them know the existence of support networks involved in offering help to people who need it.

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