Research has shown that the manner in which the media portrays death by suicide can play a role in the prospect of others contemplating and even acting upon suicidal ideations. Larry Berkowitz is the Director of the Riverside Recovery Center is an example of a specialist in the field of suicide prevention and postvention, including in regard to students, who underscores the fact that media coverage can impact the way others contemplate and even proceed with attempts to die by suicide. With this in mind, there are certain media guidelines that are recommended when it comes to reporting death by suicide.
The specific elements of media guidelines for reporting on death by suicide are:
- Avoid phrases like “commit suicide” or “successful suicide”
- Do not provide too many details on suicide methodology
- Always provide suicide helpline information
- Do not suggest that a suicide was caused by a single event
Each of these elements of media guidelines for reporting on death by suicide are discussed in turn. Prior to diving deeper into these components of media guidelines for reporting death by suicide, some preliminary foundational information is presented for your consideration.
Strategic Development of Media Guidelines on Reporting Death by Suicide
The development of usable, effective media guidelines for reporting on death by suicide is something of a work in progress. Indeed, it has only been in recent times that the idea of creating a set of media guidelines for reporting on death by suicide has been a focused objective. Many individuals involved in the advocacy for and development of such guidelines trace the push to create these standards to the deaths of designer Kate Spade and television chef Anthony Bourdain.
Of course, there have been a multitude of celebrities who died by suicide throughout the decades, including the recent years. The death by suicide of comedic actor Robin Williams is one such example. Nonetheless, the deaths by suicide of Spade and Bourdain in relatively close succession and the press coverage that followed seemed to give impetus to the necessity of developing meaningful media guidelines.
Avoid Phrases Like “Commit Suicide” or “Successful Suicide”
Words matter and that includes the phraseology used in reporting about deaths by suicide. In this regard, words like “commit suicide” or “successful suicide” should be avoided. At this juncture in time, the preferred phrase to be used in discussing and reporting about suicide is “death by suicide.” The phrase “death by suicide” underscores that it is a health issue.
“Successful suicide” is also problematic. It is an inaccurate statement. Moreover, it can be hurtful to survivors of suicide loss.
Do Not Provide Too Many Details about Suicide Methodology
There is evidence that demonstrates that too great a focus on the methodology of a death by suicide can induce imitational behaviors by some people. Imitational behavior when it comes to death by suicide is especially an issue when it comes to school-aged individuals.
Going into too many details about suicide methodology has other negative consequences as well. Chief among them is the negative impact this can have on survivors of suicide, particularly loved ones like family members and friends. There simply is no need to aggravate the pain experienced by survivors of suicide by providing too many details about suicide methodology.
Always Provide Suicide Helpline Information
Individuals involved in the development of media guidelines for reporting on death by suicide have reached a general consensus that is summed up succinctly:
One simple sentence could save a life.
The theory is that including information about suicide helpline resources in an article on the subject of suicide, including the death of a person by suicide, can have a profound impact. Such a piece of vital information can be simply provided as “If you are in a crisis situation, please call (800) 273-8255 any time of the day or night.” As Stephanie Coggin, the vice president of communications for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes: “Anyone who is tuning into your news story or report can access immediate help if they are struggling or are worried about someone else struggling.”
The fact is that with increasing regularity this type of contact information is being included in news stories about death by suicide. As an aside, reference rather frequently is also made that making a call of this nature is confidential.
As an important aside, there has also been another important uptick in what is included in news reports about deaths by suicide. With increasing frequency, the warning signs of suicidal ideation or suicidal contemplation are being included in news stories of this nature. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the primary warning signs of someone at least thinking about suicide are:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Talking about great guilt
- Talking about significant shame
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Feeling empty, hopeless, trapped
- Feeling as if no reason to live
- Extreme sadness
- Enhanced anxiousness
- Feeling agitated
- Feeling full or rage
- Unbearable emotional pain
- Unbearable physical pain
- Researching ways to die
- Making a plan to die
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Giving important items away
- Making a will
- Saying goodbye to family and friends
- Taking dangerous risks
- Display of extreme mood swings
- Change in eating habits
- Change in sleeping routines
- Increases use of drugs or alcohol
Do Not Suggest a Suicide Was Caused by a Single Event
A major shortcoming found in media reports of death by suicide is that a person died in this manner because of a single event. The reality is that death by suicide is highly complex. Stephanie Coggin of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains:
“Avoid reporting that a suicide death was caused by a single event, such as a job loss or divorce, since research shows no one takes their life for one single reason, but rather a combination of factors. Reporting a cause leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide.”
Death by suicide occurs because of a combination of factors that include:
- Underlying risks
- Underlying vulnerability
- Triggering event or events
Again, too often the focus is only on the triggering event. Examples of underlying risks include:
- Family history
- Previous attempts
- Medical factors
- Demographic factors
- Cognitive style
- Access to means
- Psychological factors
- Clinical factors
- Substance abuse or addiction
- Exposure to suicide
Examples of underlying vulnerabilities are:
- Mood disorder
- Substance abuse
- Family history
- Sexual orientation
- Abnormal serotonin metabolism
Examples of more commonplace triggering events include:
- Problems at work
- Trouble in school
- Trouble at home
- Trouble with the law
- Personal loss