Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Copy-cat Suicides

The Werther Effect gets its name from the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe. The Culture of Life column in the Peace Weekly visits again the high suicide rate in Korea and relates it to the Werther Effect. The hero of the novel, infatuated with a woman who is engaged to another, could not stand the internal pressures that were unleashed and killed himself with a pistol. The novel was a best-seller, and the columnist  mentions that because of copycat suicides that followed--over 2000--the selling of the book in certain parts of Europe was discontinued. The Werther Effect has become the name used to describe copycat suicides that follow the publicity given to suicides in the mass media.

Looking at the continuing material prosperity of Korea, the reasons for the continuing increase of  suicides can't be  related only to financial problems but to other factors in society: the breakdown of families, the increase of divorce, our change of values, and the like. The rate of male suicides was almost 3 times that of women but this has continued to decrease, and when focusing on the women in their twenties it is practically the same or even higher. The reason is the society safety net is no longer operative for this group.

Among the young especially, this copycat contagion of suicides is often noticed. Surprisingly, we are mostly unconscious of the influence of the mass media on our behavior. The spread of cyberspace technology has also increased the volume and variety of what we see and hear, bringing rapid and questionable changes in behavior, such as suicides. 

Although suicide is an individual act, it can no longer be seen as an isolated phenomenon independent of the mores of society. We are being formed to succeed and exceed; consequently, the failure in achievements will bring frustration and sadness. The analogies from the track and field events are apropos: number one is happy with achievement; number two sees the one ahead and feels disappointment, and the third is happy to have made the third position, seeing all those behind. This narrow view of what life is all about is not helpful in living the happy  life. The low happiness index of our citizens is not unrelated to the number of suicides.

The columnist mentions the success that Hungary had in decreasing the high rate of suicides to half of what it was from 1970-80. Korea has recently also decided to face head-on our problem with an emphasis on respect for life. To search for the ideal in life is noble but when this precludes happiness, something is wrong. To live in peace with our neighbors is also a beautiful ideal. Even when there is both a lack of money and a lack of respect, living happily is a sufficient goal when it is accompanied by the love and blessing of those around us.