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Suicide and Safe Media Messaging

There is a natural human tendency to search out the cause of a seemingly inexplicable event. When a person takes their own life, the natural reaction of many, including the media, is to try to piece together what may have led to this loss. Curiosity and empathy toward those affected are common and not necessarily in a negative way. It makes sense, then, that the way we have these discussions, especially in the news media, can have an incredible impact on the public perception of suicide and a phenomenon called the ‘suicide contagion’.

The suicide contagion effect is the observed pattern of deaths by suicide in those close to someone who has taken their own life, especially in those aged 15-24. The suicide contagion effect, as it relates to media, often involves those who identify with a public figure or celebrity, which can directly affect local, state, and national suicide rates.

It is important to understand why those in suicide prevention place such a high priority on what is commonly called “Safe Media Messaging”, or including elements of coverage that will help prevent suicide and excluding those that have been found to contribute to contagion.

Those focusing on Safe Media Messaging have established a set of commonly accepted “Do’s and Don’ts” of media coverage surrounding a suicide. It should be noted that these recommendations are based on message content, not to how best this coverage is deployed. New recommendations are emerging for social media that follow similar guidelines.

When reporting on suicide, please don’t:

  • Present overly simplistic explanations for suicide or link the suicide to one specific event or stressful situation. The reasoning here is two-fold. First, many people experience traumatic events and stressful situations, and most emerge stronger and develop strategies by which they can handle becoming overwhelmed in the future. When suicide is presented as a solution to these common experiences, we neglect the capacity of people to grow and thrive and supports the idea that suicide is a common response to life’s hardships. Second, in the vast majority of cases, ending one’s life is the result of a combination of myriad factors that may not even be clear to those closest to the person. In assigning blame to one specific event, we miss the opportunity to further explain the complex nature of suicide and the real opportunity to prevent it.
  • Sensationalize or glorify the act of suicide, especially above the life of the person whose life has been lost. This most certainly does not mean that we should not celebrate the lives of those we have lost; rather, we should celebrate the life of a person separate from the act itself. Images of the funeral, the site of the suicide, etc., should be avoided in favor of stories and pictures that show the person’s life.
  • Normalize suicide; many statistics used by those in the suicide prevention field can be used as compelling evidence that suicide is a common occurrence. The increase in suicide rates over the past ten years are alarming, but these figures also still represent a very small portion of the population. We cannot present suicide as a common and effective means to an end, or we run the risk of promoting it as a method by which to cope with struggles or life circumstances.
  • Present information, especially highly graphic or any attempt at a reconstruction, regarding the method by which a person took their life. Especially in cases which receive a tremendous amount of media coverage, people who are also struggling with overwhelming emotions can deeply identify with the person who has lost their life; providing details as to the means itself may further contribute to the likelihood that these individuals will consider suicide.

The opportunity exists for those in the media to have a much more positive impact on suicide prevention than simply refraining from the elements of coverage listed above. When covering a suicide in the community or on the national stage, please try to:

  • Use relatable and non-stigmatizing language. The most common example of this is the phrase “committed suicide”. The word commit is laden with blame in our culture, implying that the person who took their life is guilty of a crime, which further stigmatizes those who attempt or complete suicide and those they have left behind.
  • Provide local and national resources for those who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. While we ask that media avoid providing a simple cause for a person taking their own life, we hope that media are able to show that being overwhelmed and experiencing mental health concerns are actually common, and that help is available, and many people recover and move past these feelings.
  • Engage an expert in mental health and suicide prevention. The best media coverage of such events are created through ongoing relationships between prevention specialists and members of the media. In this way, media is able to have a contact at the ready when a situation rapidly develops, and the community can be presented with effective mental health and suicide prevention information in the wake of tragedy. To develop these relationships, reach out to your local suicide prevention coalition.

Media coverage has perhaps the greatest effect on how the public perceives and reacts to many social situations and can be one of the most powerful tools in strengthening communities and providing access to needed services. As with all prevention efforts, partnerships between those in all arenas is necessary to make progress. By promoting the necessity of mental health care and the resources available for those who are struggling, the media may lead the way toward a world without suicide.

For more information on Safe Media Messaging, please visit: http://reportingonsuicide.org/

Bailey Blair, LMSW, CPS
Board Member, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Kansas Chapter

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