On Responsible Media Reporting of Suicides

In recent times, a cursory glance at popular media will reveal an increase in the number of people who die by suicides. While this does not necessarily point to a rise in the incidence or prevalence of suicides, the increased reporting reiterate the message public mental health professionals have been preaching for years, that suicide is a public health problem.

Although these 'anecdotal’ reports may have the advantage of increasing awareness of suicides, depression, mental illnesses and other mental health issues; inappropriate reporting of suicides may increase the risk of suicide attempts among vulnerable groups-these include people with mental disorders, behavioural problems with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, those who have attempted suicide in the past, marginalized persons and groups that experience discrimination, etc.

Studies globally have revealed that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable people. According to the World Health Organization, when suicide is reported using dramatic headlines, describing the method of death in unnecessary detail, or claims that the suicide was caused by a specific, ongoing, difficult circumstances; "copycat suicides" may result.

Rather than unduly sensationalizing a suicide story, the role of the media is to present the story carefully, even briefly, in order to correct public misperceptions and myths about suicide, discourage suicide as a solution and encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek professional help.


Educating the Public
To report suicides responsibly, it is important to reject the temptation to provide simplistic reasons for suicides. The factors that lead an individual to suicide are usually multiple and complex. Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event like failing an exam, losing a job or the failure of a relationship. Instead, the interplay between mental health disorders, cultural, genetic and sociocultural factors must be taken into account. Reports that take this high ground will help to dispel popular myths and educate the public.

Avoid Inappropriate Language
Also, language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicides should be avoided; including language that misleads or misinforms the public. In practical terms, suicide can be removed from the heading and replaced by a neutral word; e.g. ‘John Bull dies at 29’ is preferable to ‘John Bull used herbicide to commit suicide’. Terms that educate the public about the public health aspects of suicide should replace words that desensitize, normalize or that imply criminality.

Avoid Prominent Placement or Undue Repetition of Suicide Stories
By giving prominence to suicide reports and constantly repeating them, the risk of imitative behavior amongst vulnerable readers is increased. Suicide stories should not be lead item of a news report, neither should they take the most prominent space on a newspaper or magazine. Instead, for print media, they should located on the inside pages,  towards the bottom of the page. For television and radio, stories about suicides should appear further down in the order of reports.

Avoid Unnecessary Details of the Suicide
Explicit descriptions of the method used in a given completed or attempted suicide should be avoided. For example, in a case of poisoning or drug overdose, a report of the nature or quantity of substance used, how or where they were procured can lead to imitation of the suicide act by vulnerable people. Also, an undue report of the location of suicide may inadvertently promote such a place as a 'suicide site' thus increasing the number of people who may attempt suicides at such places.

Provide Information About Where to Seek Help
Always, whenever suicide is reported, information about the options for seeking help should be included in the write-up. By providing a list of helpful sources and sites, at-risk individuals who are contemplating suicides are furnished with avenues for support, help and professional care.

Suicide is a public health concern that has to be handled carefully. As such, media reports of suicides must avoid misinformation and protect the public against the negative effects of suicides by adopting the public health role of educating, providing hope and directing at-risk individuals to professional help.