How Should We Report Suicides in a Responsible Way?

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.

References

  1. 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.
  2. Suicide R on. Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. http://reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations/#dodonts. Published 2016. Accessed August 23, 2016.
  3. 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.
  4. Fonslow BR, Stein BD, Webb KJ, et al. NIH Public Access. 2013;10(1):54-56. doi:10.1038/nmeth.2250.Digestion.
  5. Suicide.org. Media Guidelines for Suicide. http://www.suicide.org/media-guidelines-for-suicide.html.
  6. 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.
  7. Insights S. Global social media research summary 2016. 2016. http://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/.

 

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Project MinE: After you dumped ice on your head

Remember the August two years ago when everyone was challenging each other to pour a giant bucket of ice and water on their heads? Did you secretly (or not-so-secretly) scoff at the effectiveness of such a campaign?

When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge* went viral in July-August 2014, it saw over 2 million participants and raised way over a $100 million.

Did you ever wonder how that actually played out?

A part of the money raised by the campaign, funded groundbreaking research in identifying the cause of the disease.

But first, what is ALS?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that affects 1 in 400 people. About 10% of ALS cases are inherited and 90% are sporadic. “A” means no. “Myo” = muscle, and “Trophic” = nourishment, which essentially means that those suffering from ALS do not get muscle nourishment. The nerve cells that control the muscles degenerate and the muscles stiffen and waste away. It usually affects people between the ages of 40-70 and they slowly lose their ability to move, eat and speak, eventually suffer from paralysis and death.

The cause of the disease was unknown and we were unable to come up with cures for the disease. In 2013-2014, Pete Frates and Pat Quinn (who had been diagnosed with ALS) started the Ice Bucket Challenge to promote awareness and raise funds. The campaign went viral with over 2.4 million videos circulating on Facebook of people dumping a giant bucket of ice on their head to create awareness.

The campaign was a huge success and it raised over $100 million.

Let’s see how the money was spent.

Of the funds raised, 67% were used for research, 20% went to patient and community services, 9% was dedicated to public and professional education, 2% to additional fundraising and 2% to external processing fees.

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Around $77million was set aside for research that saw scientists collaborating from 15 different countries to conduct the largest genome-wide association study for ALS. The studies had over 40,000 participants, both affected by ALS and healthy. During the course of one research project called ‘Project MinE’, the scientists made discoveries that were pretty huge.

What did they actually find?

They established that ALS is a complex disease with not just one, but multiple genes contributing to it. They discovered a gene NEK1, to be the biggest contributor to the disease. The researchers also found a new gene called C21orf2. Mutations on these genes can directly caused ALS. The knowledge of these genes allows us to study, in detail, the mechanisms that result in ALS and that can further help design suitable therapies for treatment.

According to the scientists involved, this discovery only goes to show that there are many more such genes waiting to be discovered and we are on the way to being able to provide effective treatments for ALS.

So the next time we get tagged in an annoyingly viral video, it might just be another groundbreaking medical discovery in the making.

A different approach to mental disorders: Where acceptance is cure

We have made a considerable amount of progress in raising awareness about mental health and making initiatives to care for those suffering from mental illness. But the stigma doesn’t seem to go away and with it, the need to ‘fix’ these individuals.

But what if the real cure was not having any interventions at all?

A quiet town in Belgium called Geel (pronounced ‘Hayle’) approaches mental illnesses in a completely contrasting way. They have an established foster care system where individuals with mental illnesses move in with a family in the town. These individuals live with their hosts and lead normal lives as a part of their family.

This system is starkly different from the way we typically approach mental illness. In geel, these individuals are not considered ‘different’, they are not pressured to fit in with the rest of the society; they are accepted as normal, just the way they are.

There are no indicators whatsoever, of any illness or stigma even in the language. These individuals are referred to as boarders and they stay with their hosts for even upto 50 years. Terms like ‘patient’ and ‘mentally ill’ are never heard.

This model of care has been prevalent in Geel since the 14th century and it is still going strong to this day. Any behavior that we would typically consider ‘unusual’ is accepted by the hosts without even batting an eyelid.

There was one middle aged man who would nervously twist the buttons off his shirt every single day and his host would sew them on every single night without complaining. His hosts explained that he needs to twist them off every single day. Must accept their odd behaviors. Instead of focusing on recovery and obsessively trying to fix them, the residents of Geel just let them be.

Studies have shown that this foster care system that actually makes the difference. When compared to those who lived with families, these boarders showed better progress. This goes to show that it’s all what we think and how we think about it.

 

 

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