By Trevor Stammers
Though first coined in the 1970s, the term ‘Werther effect' is still not widely known but refers to well-recognised spikes in similar suicides following widespread media publicity of a specific suicide whether in a soap opera or real life.
The effect immediately came to mind when I turned on Radio 4 to hear the voice of a psychiatrist explaining why she was prepared to assist a young patient in her twenties to kill herself.
The programme followed, Aurelia, a young woman who took her own life in her native Netherlands with her supporting family, friends and psychiatrist around her bedside in January this year. Though the programme did contain some dissenting voices regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide for psychiatric illness, it principally featured Aurelia herself, her psychiatrist and her supporters. As a GP for thirty years before entering academia, I thought of all the vulnerable patients I had helped move back from the place of ultimate despair and of how people still in that place today might have been adversely affected by listening to Aurelia’s advocacy of her suicide being the only way out of her unhappiness.
Not just any suicide of course but one which took advantage of the legality of euthanasia in Holland, with her psychiatrist’s blessing and facilitation and in the full glare of social media coverage and wider publicity across the world. One of her friends said that “She didn’t want to bother anyone else. When you jump in front of a train, the driver of the train has lifelong trauma ….she definitely didn’t want that”. However the irony is that with the public broadcasting of her suicide, many more people across the world might be affected by than just one train driver. There are now a number of cases arising where family members who thought they had no choice but to support a relative undergoing euthanasia - because after all it is legal and the doctors agree it should be done, have subsequently realised they were being pressured to agree and are expressing doubt about the safety of the process.
Another irony is that Aurelia’s psychiatrist herself admitted that you could “never be 100% certain” that a patient’s death-wish was not a part of their disorder but she was never-the-less prepared to support it even though Aurelia had recently lost her mother and was still grieving her death. I have seen many patients over the years who have given up hope of being mentally well again whose circumstance have unexpectedly changed and they have recovered in a way they could never have foreseen. However Aurelia’s psychiatrist stated confidently “The moment I administer the poison …..I am quite sure that is what the patient wants at that moment and already for a long period”. Of course no one will know ever now if she was right because Aurelia and all those patients preceding her along this path are now dead.
The programme however may yet have some value as it gives overwhelming evidence of the practical slippery slope down which countries which legalise assisted suicide soon slide. We should never let the same thing happen in the UK.