A sensational piece of news is more than just a tidbit of information you overhear and later forget. It usually elicits an outpour of emotions and overwhelming reactions, especially in social media. It also leaves a deep impact in our minds and affects us more than we would like to admit.
That’s not all, over 50 research studies have shown that certain media pieces have the potential to increase suicidal tendencies in people1–3. This can result in ‘suicide contagion’ or ‘copycat suicide’, which is essentially when a person is led to attempt suicide following the reporting of another 2.
The good news is, that the way we report suicides can even work to prevent it. When we shift our focus from sensationalizing the news and describing the details of the means and planning involved to describing the help available, those at-risk can be encouraged to seek help instead of following in the footsteps of the deceased.
There have been several guidelines by prominent organizations; the most popular being the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, World Health Organization and the Samaritans; that outline the dos and don’ts of suicide reporting.
Points to keep in mind1–5
- The causes that lead to suicide are not as obvious as they appear to be. There are usually multiple causes that culminate in the act. Avoid pinpointing a single cause such as a divorce or bad grades. Moreover, suicide should never be normalized or presented as a solution to any problem.
- Oftentimes, there are several psychiatric illnesses that go unrecognized and untreated. The person, in this case, is deprived of necessary medical intervention. Draw attention to how reaching out for professional help can work to save lives.
- Take this opportunity to educate the community about suicide. Bring to light the factors that go unnoticed and how we can work to build a support system that promotes mental wellbeing.
- Provide information about the risk factors, warning signs and treatment options available. Also, share stories of those who overcame a suicidal crisis and the resources that helped them.
- Do not explicitly describe the site of suicide or the methods used by the deceased.
- Show respect and consideration for those bereaved by the suicide of a loved one.
- Always provide details of how to seek help. Emphasize that anyone feeling suicidal can call these numbers any time of the day.
- Exercise caution especially while dealing with celebrity suicides and avoid sensationalizing the news. If these celebrity deaths are glorified, it will project an idea to vulnerable individuals that we as a society, honor suicides and will promote imitative behavior.
We should consider these above points not just as guidelines for media professionals, but also for us to follow as users of the internet and social media. We currently have around 3.5 billion people use the internet6 and approximately 2 billion people active on social media7. Social media posts should hence, not work to sensationalize suicides, but attempt to build a supportive and well-informed community that can effectively prevent suicides.
- Sisask M, Värnik A. Media roles in suicide prevention: A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2012;9(1):123-138. doi:10.3390/ijerph9010123.
- Suicide R on. Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. http://reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations/#dodonts. Published 2016. Accessed August 23, 2016.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. https://afsp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/recommendations.pdf. Published 2016. Accessed August 24, 2016.
- Fonslow BR, Stein BD, Webb KJ, et al. NIH Public Access. 2013;10(1):54-56. doi:10.1038/nmeth.2250.Digestion.
- Suicide.org. Media Guidelines for Suicide. http://www.suicide.org/media-guidelines-for-suicide.html.
- Statista I. Number of internet users worldwide from 2005 to 2016 (in millions). http://www.statista.com/statistics/273018/number-of-internet-users-worldwide/. Published 2016.
- Insights S. Global social media research summary 2016. 2016. http://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/.