by Lina Sagaral-Reyes

(This is the last installment to the article, #Hawid-laum: e-crisis hotlines save lives amid the pandemic published on Sept. 30, 2022)

Cagayan de Oro – As the world marked the annual Suicide Awareness and Prevention Day on Sept. 10, 2022, a series of suicide incidents swept across Cagayan de Oro.

By month’s end, the wave of eight cases within nine days—from the Sept. 10 to 18, 2022—brought the year’s total to 23, surpassing 2021’s tally of 19 suicide incidents, with still three months to go before 2022 ended.

But as quickly as the numbers increased, there was a sudden decline in the month’s second half—between September 19 and 30 —with only two cases.

What caused the sudden spike and the equally sudden decline?

Maria Dolores Mercado, mental health program coordinator at the Department of Health (DOH)-Region 10 non-communicable diseases cluster, says exposure to exaggerated live broadcast coverage that extends from traditional to social media, could be a major factor.

In different forums in recent months, Mercado, a psychiatric nurse and college instructor in psychiatric nursing, had always called out the local broadcast media for its sensationalized coverage of these events as this, according to her, could result in more “copycat” suicide cases in the city.

Maria Dolores Mercado, coordinator of DOH Region 10‘s mental health program. Photo: screengrab from Talakayan, PIA-10

Werther phenomenon and media reporting

“This is called the Werther phenomenon,” she said. The Werther effect, first mentioned in 1982 by David Phillips, references Werther, the protagonist in Goethe’s novel, “The Sorrows of the Young Werther,” who killed himself because of unrequited love.

In 1774, when it was first published, many young men who read this epistolary novel killed themselves.

Mercado cited DOH Administrative Order No. 2022-0004 published on 10 March 2022 setting the “Guidelines for Ethical and Responsible Reporting and Portrayal of Suicide in the Media, Audiovisual and Films.” She discussed this at a forum among journalists and in an online public service program at Oro Broadcast Services on Oct. 8, 2022.

Many studies suggest that “media reports about people who have died by suicide can influence vulnerable people as is associated with higher rates of suicide,” according to the Canadian Association of Psychiatrists in its 2018 re-issue of a policy paper on suicide reporting guidelines.

Breakdown of suicide-related cases in Cagayan de Oro City from 2020 to August 2022.
Graphic from the Facebook page of CSWD CDO Psychosocial

Northern Mindanao and Cagayan de Oro cases

Mercado revealed, without citing data, that in Northern Mindanao, suicide cases decreased in 2022 as it had gone up in Cagayan de Oro. 

“The suicide cases somehow went up in Northern Mindanao in 2020. In 2021, it went even higher. The cases went down (in 2022) but the data we have comprise only those in the first half of the year,” she said.

Region 10 is comprised of Misamis Oriental, Misamis Occidental, Lanao del Norte, and Camiguin.

But she further pointed out that suicide rates in the city had been always high, correlating it to the sensationalized, on-the-spot coverage of suicide crises.

Journalists are trained to responsibly handle suicide and mental health coverage. Left photo by Stephanie Berganio, journalists on field coverage; Middle photo by Lina Sagaral-Reyes, radio broadcasters during a journalism training; Right photo by Charmaigne Tamsi-Jabla, reporters at a DOH press briefing on Covid-19

“The suicide rates had always been high in Cagayan de Oro. It is probably due to sensationalized reporting, “she added.

She recalled an experience: “Diha gyud time nga nagsakay kog taxi nga gusto na nako ignan ang driver nga adtoan nato na. Kay sobra ka sensationalised ug ka detalye.” (“There was a time while I was riding a taxi and was listening to the news on the radio, and I had this urge to tell the taxi driver to bring me to the radio station to give the anchor a piece of my mind.”)

More than 50 studies worldwide indicate that several factors could aggravate the Werther impact, including the duration, amount, and prominence of coverage. Also considered are the detailed description of the method used, dramatic images, and repetitive or extensive coverage.

Graphics from the Facebook page of CSWD CDO Psychosocial

Papageno phenomenon

If radio stations, with traditional and digital platforms, are a factor behind the surge in suicides, did they also contribute to the decline in cases after September 18th?

They probably did.

On September 18th, at around 8 p. m, a young man was seen at the edge of a protruding concrete platform holding the deck at Ysalina Bridge across the Cagayan de Oro River.

A staff of a food delivery service company stopped by, climbed down to the platform, placed his arms over his shoulders, and talked to the young man in those crucial minutes. 

Relatives of the young man as well as a rescue team from Barangay Carmen came by later. 

“I saw him from afar as I was crossing over the bridge on my way to deliver a basket of fried chicken wings  to a hospital staff. I also saw a woman trying to get the attention of the young man, raising both hands but the man would not turn around and instead was just at the edge, looking down on the river,” Ace Tristan Dy of Grab Food Delivery, said.

“We were strangers to each other but somehow we understood each other,” Dy reflected.

He said he had no training in rescuing people but his mother had often told him that he had the gift of persuasive speech. He attributed his calmness and intuitive skills to Buddhism, which is a long-time family practice.

In a few minutes, the young man agreed to go with his relatives.

In reporting suicide-related cases, radio reporters at DXCC focused on the rescue of a young man at Ysalina Bridge. Photo from the Facebook page of RMN DXCC 818

Aside from traditional media coverage, the Facebook pages of at least five radio stations shared these moments of rescue captured in photographs by the Sangguniang Kabataan of Barangay Carmen.

From Sept. 18 till the first week of the next month, there was a single report of an attempted suicide.

The decline could be what is called the Papageno effect.

Since the release of a seminal study by academic researcher Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, evidence is growing that media can play a positive role in suicide prevention by showing that there are alternatives to suicide, which bring hope to people in crises.

The phenomenon is named after Papageno, the character in the opera Magic Flute, who lost his love and contemplated suicide but was convinced by three boys to choose to live anew.

The station DXCC of the Radio Mindanao Network, among those which shared the story in its traditional broadcast as well as in its Facebook page, has a policy to cover suicide responsibly, thus it reported the rescue extensively. Other radio stations like Magnum Radio, DXKO, Bombo Radyo and iFM Idol Radio also shared the posts.

Evidence is growing that media can play a positive role in suicide prevention by showing that there are alternatives to suicide, which bring hope to people in crises.

Screen cap from the section of reporting about suicide and mental health from NUJP’s Ethical Guide for Filipino Journalists

Annaliza Amontos Reyes, program director at DXCC, said that their reporters are always reminded to follow the code of ethics of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), of which the station is a member.

The KBP has a code of ethics which provides guidelines on how to report crises situations, among others. But it still does not have particular guidelines in covering suicide.  (Editor’s note: In November 2021, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines released the Ethical Guide for Filipino Journalists which has a section on reporting about suicide and mental health.)   

Graphic from the Facebook Page of CSWD CDO Psychosocial

When a suicide occurs and coverage is deemed necessary, Amontos-Reyes said that they (reporters) emphasize suicide prevention.

“We interview a psychologist so our listeners are educated on what to do when faced with similar situations. And how we can help those who are suicidal.”

As for sensationalized coverage as part of the strategy to beat others in the ratings game, she admonished a do-no-harm policy as more important.

“Instead of providing more commentary (than news) on the survivors or the family, we must educate (our listeners),” she stressed.

Focus ta sa pag educate. Unsaon nato malikayan ang suicide, unsaon nato pag tabang sa mga suicidal. Mas kinahanglan nato ang pag educate, ” (“Let us focus on the goal to educate. On the preventive measures. On how we can support those who are suicidal. We need to stress more on how to educate.”) WWW

Read Part 1 #Hawid-Laum: e-crisis hotlines save lives amid the pandemic

Featured image:

(Left photo by Lina Sagaral-Reyes) Kids at a neighborhood in Barangay Balulang, Cagayan de Oro, gather at an alfresco shed to watch YouTube and Tiktok videos on a smart phone connected to WiFi from a nearby Internet cafe during the second year of the pandemic. (Right graphic from the FB page of CSWD CDO Psychosocial)