Guidelines for Covering Suicide: How Many Have We Violated?

Writers reporting on suicide should follow WHO guidelines to minimize contagion.

Posted Aug 13, 2014

"In America, they really do mythologize people when they die." - Robin Williams.

We've been paying a lot of attention to the death of Robin Williams and for a lot of different reasons. Upon first reading the news, I felt gut-punched. It's kind of hard to explain how much Williams mattered to me when I was a kid, when he rose to fame playing the alien outsider in the situation comedy Mork & Mindy. The show's appeal was about more than the wacky antics. The fish-out-of-water humor provided wild comedic moments and, interestingly enough, lessons on coping as an outsider or oddball, and it wouldn't have worked so well without the energy and life that actor-comedian Robin Williams brought to that role. In the decades since then, he has entertained a generation that largely never saw that TV show. His career, like his emotional states, underwent many ups and down along the way. After decades of movies and standup comedy, he returned to television this past year, starring in The Crazy Ones with Sarah Michelle Gellar. CBS cancelled it after a single season. Williams recently entered a treatment program yet again and struggled with depression

Here at, a lot of articles have been popping up as those of us who write here separately express our own reactions, strain to make sense of it all, and try to reach out to people still living with pain. Suicide is not only about depression. The majority of depressed people are not suicidal, and not every suicidal person is depressed. We have good reason for worrying how the news of this celebrity death will affect people, and many of us strive to do something about that.

Copycat suicide, also known as suicide contagion, happens when people make suicide attempts in emulation of others who have killed themselves or made their own attempt. The phenomenon involved is sometimes referred to as the Werther effect because of reports that numerous young men duplicated the protagonist's suicide in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther ("The Sorrows of Young Werther"). Researchers have long noted spikes in suicide rates after well publicized reports of celebrities who killed or try to kill themselves. Even though some have questioned the validity of this observation as legend or illusory correlation - a possible artifact of hype, limited reporting, selective attention, or primed interpretation - the mere possibility gives us cause for concern. 

As of this writing, less than two days after most of us learned the tragic news, there two dozen articles in the "RIP Robin Williams" topic, and that number seems likely to grow. In the midst of our need to respond, to do something, anything at all, to express ourselves and to reach out to others who need help, have we been careful in what we're doing?

The World Health Organization has provided a guide manual, suggestions really, in their document Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals, that is worth looking through. They recommend that writers on suicide in general should interpret information carefully, draw their information from authentic and reliable resources, be careful about making impromtu statements regardless of time pressures, avoid sensationalistic generalizations like "suicide epidemic," and resist the temptation to report suicide as an understandable reaction to stresses in this world.

Recommendations for those writing about specific suicides grow more detailed, starting with "Sensational coverage of suicides should be assiduously avoided, particularly when a celebrity is involved."

  • Minimize coverage.
  • Acknowledge any mental health problem.
  • Avoid overstatement.
  • Keep it off the front page.
  • Do not include photographs that show the body, the scene, or the methods used.
  • Do not detail the methods used.
  • Do not call suicide unexplainable or present it simplistically. 
  • Acknowledge that a variety of factors influence this behavior.
  • Do not depict suicide as a coping method.
  • Consider the impact this has on the suffering and stigma of the deceased's family and other survivors.
  • Do not glorify the deceased as a martyr or object of public adulation. Emphasize the mourning.
  • Describing the physical consequences of parasuicide (suicide attempt that does not end in death), such as brain damage or paralysis.

University of London psychologist Alex Mesoudi, who studied media's power to reduce or magnify the problems involved in suicide contagion, has urged writers to follow the W.H.O. guidelines and to keep the word suicide out of the headline when covering specific deaths. 

These initial posts (of which, I should acknowledge, I wrote the first) vary in how closely they meet these recommendations. They are simply recommendations, of course, but we can endeavor to give them due consideration as we move ahead.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 
1-800-273-TALK (8255), any time day or night.

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