Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Why Reporting on Suicide Isn’t Black or White

Nuance in media reporting about suicide

Recently that I learned that New Zealand has, for 25 years, essentially made media mention of suicide illegal.

That means that if a person dies by suicide, it’s possible that no one outside of that person’s intimate circle of family, friends, and colleagues would ever know.

Coroners in New Zealand have tremendous power. Even after a coroner has ruled a death a suicide, a report can’t include much more detail than a name, address, and occupation of the person who died.

The goal of these restrictions is to be as sure as possible that media don’t contribute to suicide risk among vulnerable people. The thinking is that people who are at risk for suicide - especially young people, teenagers - will see reports of suicide and go on to attempt suicide. It’s characterized as a contagion effect, but it’s a real question if this effect can be caused by media reports.

The result of the restrictions in New Zealand is that reporters shy away from writing about suicide at all. Ultimately, there has been so much fear of more suicides that the opportunity to talk about prevention has been just about lost.

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Worldwide, September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. As I thought about how the month of September brings so much more media coverage of suicide, I considered what it would look like if the United States had such severe restrictions on reporting about suicide.

We wouldn’t have known about Tyler Clementi, the young man whose death virtually catalyzed a movement to prevent LGBT teen suicide.

We wouldn’t have known about Dave Duerson, the former NFL player who died by suicide and, quite controversially, drew needed attention to traumatic brain injury in professional athletes.

There wouldn’t be a Wikipedia entry for “suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons,” or investigative journalism that dug beneath the comfort zone of the bullying-causes-suicide storyline surrounding the death of Phoebe Prince. There wouldn’t be a nuanced conversation about bullying, suicide, adolescent mental health, and social media, because the connections between these issues might be altogether hidden from view.

Many of the stories written about these individuals weren’t written safely. Often, stories included too much detail. It’s never necessary to report exactly how someone took his or her own life, and it’s just bad journalism to suggest links between ideas that aren’t based in fact.

But, I think of all of the good things that came out of reporting about these tragic and complicated deaths, and wonder if it may have been worth taking the many risks involved.

As this awareness month comes to a close, I’d like there to be more awareness of the ways to safely report about suicide. It’s more than using these guidelines, which have been endorsed by members of the media.

It’s telling the stories of communities building programs to support people at risk for suicide, interviewing people who found the help they needed, and sharing information about new research on factors that contribute to psychological resilience. There’s a lot of power in coverage that goes beyond telling one individual’s story and promotes prevention on a large scale.

Copyright 2013 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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