Preventing suicide contagion by changing how suicide is reported

Evidence shows that reporting suicides on national television could have a negative effect on viewers who might be at risk of wanting to end their lives. Acknowledging the old adage, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it” is extremely important to keep in mind when communicating tragic events to the public, especially when there is a growing global concern about mental health.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. More than 50 research studies conducted worldwide have found that the increase of suicide incidences is related to the amount, duration and prominence of suicide coverage (NIMH 2014).

The risk of increasing the amount of suicides occur when the stories explicitly describe the suicide method, use dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeatedly showing extensive coverage of the incident. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this type of news coverage comes across as glamorizing or sensationalizing death.

Being conscientious about suicide in the media

The manner in which suicides are broadcasted should be done tastefully, briefly and with careful wording, to prevent those who misconstrue the event as being something alluring rather than something tragic.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, instead of using dramatic sensationalistic headlines, or “prominent placement” such as “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide”, the headline can read “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27”. Also, instead of including photos or videos of the location or method of death, grieving family, friends, memorials or funerals, there is the option to use a photo of the victim with a local crisis phone number.

The prevalence of suicide and learning how to react

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates among adolescents and young adults increased from 1950 through 1990. Specifically, the rate of suicide for people 15 to 24 years old increased from 4.5 per 100,000 to 13.5 per 100,000.

Adolescents and young adults who commit suicide are less likely to be clinically depressed or to have other mental disorders as risk factors for suicide, compared to other age groups. Therefore, it’s possible that there is an identifiable preventable risk factor for suicide among young people.  There has been much research conducted on this phenomenon and evidence suggests that “contagion” (the process of exposing suicidal behavior) is considered one of the highest risk factors of suicide (CDC 2014).

In 1989, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the New Jersey Department of Health held a workshop where public health officials, researchers, psychiatrists and psychologists collaborated with media professionals from around the country to share their concerns and perspectives on suicide. This was done in order to brainstorm different ways in which suicide among people aged 15 to 24 could be reported without adding to the potential for suicide contagion.

A statement released from the workshop said: “In addition to recognizing the types of news coverage that can promote suicide contagion, the workshop participants strongly agreed that reporting of suicide can have several direct benefits. Specifically, community efforts to address this problem can be strengthened by news coverage that describes the help and support available in a community, explains how to identify persons at high risk for suicide, or presents information about risk factors for suicide. An ongoing dialogue between news media professionals and health and other public officials is the key to facilitating the reporting of this information.”

Suicide risk is increased when someone is dealing with an undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorder. If you or a loved one would like more information regarding suicide prevention, warning signs, risk-factors and treatment for suicide or to learn more about finding help for mental health disorders, you can call the Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178.