The way media reports suicide can do one of two things. They can unwittingly create a contagious trend or can educate and help others receive treatment.
Research has shown that how suicide is reported makes all the difference. Below is an excerpt from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
What to Avoid
• Avoid detailed descriptions of the suicide, including specifics, method and location.
Reason: Detailed descriptions increase the risk of a vulnerable individual imitating the act.
• Avoid romanticizing someone who has died by suicide. Avoid featuring tributes by friends or relatives. Avoid first-person accounts from adolescents about their suicide attempts.
Reason: Positive attention given to someone who has died (or attempted to die) by suicide can lead vulnerable individuals who desire such attention to take their own lives.
• Avoid glamorizing the suicide of a celebrity.
Reason: Research indicates that celebrity suicides can promote copycat suicides among vulnerablepeople. Do not let the glamour of the celebrity obscure any mental health or substance abuse problems that may have contributed to the celebrity’s death.
• Avoid overstating the frequency of suicide.
Reason: Overstating the frequency of suicide (by, for example, referring to a “suicide epidemic”) may cause vulnerable individuals to think of it as an accepted or normal response to problems. Even in populations that have the highest suicide rates, suicides are rare.
• Avoid using the words “committed", “failed” or “successful” suicide.
Reason: The verb “committed” is usually associated with sins or crimes. Suicide is better understood in a behavioral health context than a criminal context. Consider using the phrase “died by suicide.” The phrases “successful suicide” or “failed suicide attempt” imply favorable or inadequate outcomes. Consider using “death by suicide” or “non-fatal suicide attempt.”
What to Do
• Always include a referral phone number and information about local crisis intervention services.
• Emphasize recent treatment advances for depression and other mental illness. Include stories of people whose treatment was life-saving or who overcame despair without attempting suicide.
• Interview a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about suicide and the role of treatment or screening for mental disorders as a preventive strategy.
• Emphasize actions that communities can take to prevent suicides.
• Include a sidebar listing resources, warning signs, risk and protective factors for suicide.
Bohanna, I. & Wang, X. (2012). Media guidelines for the responsible reporting of suicide: A review of effectiveness. Crisis, 33(4):190-198.
Niederkrotenthaler, T, M. et. al (2010). Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther V. Papageno Effects. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(3): 234-243.
Pirkis, J. (2009). Suicide and the media, Psychiatry, 8 (7): 269-271.
Dr. Deborah Serani is an award-winning author. Her new book "Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers" launches in September 2013.