Following the recent deaths of designer Kate Spade and chef, author and TV host Anthony Bourdain, journalists have faced the task of reporting on suicide, which is not only painful, but challenging, too. Journalists risk contagion, which is an increase in suicides connected to irresponsible media reporting. There is also the risk of overlooking statements and information that would further add stigma and feelings of shame for those surviving the loss and those more susceptible to self-harm.
Sparking a conversation about suicide and mental health can be positive, but it is sometimes hard to strike a balance between providing accurate information and preventing unnecessary damage.
When covering suicide – the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. for all ages – less is more. This means less details, less sensationalist headlines and less intrusion. Journalists cannot always make things better, but they should at least try to not make them worse.
We asked a few media and mental health experts to share their advice for anyone reporting on the subject.
Avoid phrases like “commit suicide” or “successful suicide”
People “commit” a crime, says Natasha Devon, writer and founder of the Mental Health Media Charter, a U.K.-based project launched to ensure the landscape of mental health reporting is responsible. Suicide isn’t a crime, but a global health issue.
“Evidence shows that if people believe there will be legal ramifications, it might stop them seeking help for suicidal thoughts,” says Devon. “It’s important to avoid perpetuating this myth.”
On the other hand, the expression “successful suicide” is not only inaccurate, conveying the idea of achieving something positive, but upsetting, especially for bereaved loved ones. The use of a more appropriate, non-judgmental language could encourage people in need to ask for help.
This news story from The Guardian is a good example for anyone looking to shift their wording.
Do not give too many details on suicide methodology
“There is evidence to show that going into a lot of gratuitous detail about how a person ended their life can induce imitational behaviors in readers who are at risk of either suicide or self-harm,” Devon says. “This is called ‘triggering.’”
A few days ago, the Associated Press’ vice president for standards, John Daniszewski, explained that they had removed some unnecessary details initially published in stories about the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, urging journalists to keep information on the method of death to a minimum and not make them the lead of stories.
A great example is CNN’s obituary for Bourdain, which tributes his life and legacy without oversharing facts about his death.
Always provide helpline information
A simple sentence could save a life. It’s sufficient to add something along the lines of “If you are in crisis, please call the [relevant national phone or text lines].”
“[This is so that] anyone who is tuning into your news story or report can access immediate help if they are struggling or if they are worried about someone struggling,” says Stephanie Coggin, vice president of communications and marketing at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
This is something we’ve started seeing in most news stories in recent weeks; a telling sign that awareness is rising across newsrooms and media organizations.
You may also consider including a list of warning signs to recognize in friends and family.
Do not suggest that a suicide was caused by a single event
Suicide is complex, and is often the outcome of different causes, including mental illness – whether recognized and treated or not.
“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,” explains Coggin. “Reporting a cause leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide.”
If mental illness or substance abuse are involved, it might be helpful to contextualize and broaden the public conversation on health and addiction, specifically mentioning that these problems are treatable.
“Be sure to include hopeful messages that suicide is preventable in language, tone and images used,” Coggin says.
A recent commentary in The New Yorker explores the complex, nuanced and preventable nature of suicide.