How to Have a More Responsible Conversation About Suicide
Practical guidelines could help the media—and the rest of us—reduce risk.
Posted Jun 05, 2018
By Devon Frye
Late Tuesday morning, news outlets reported that fashion designer Kate Spade had been found dead in her home after an apparent suicide. By mid-afternoon, Spade’s name had risen to the top of Twitter’s trending topics.
Experts in suicide prevention warn that when handled improperly, high-profile suicides run the risk of being glamorized by over-dramatized media coverage, which may lead to copycat suicides or the spread of stigma surrounding depression and mental illness. In the wake of these incidents, experts say, media outlets and individuals can (and should) take steps to talk about suicide in a more responsible, empathetic way.
How the Media Can Better Report on Suicide
As the public’s primary source of information following high-profile suicides, the media plays an important role in how these incidents are presented and interpreted, experts say. Following consensus-based guidelines—like those outlined in “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” a resource developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)—can minimize the risk of “copycat” incidents or the glamorization of death by suicide. According to the AFSP, news outlets should:
Avoid sharing unnecessary details on the means or method of suicide. “The facts are enough,” says Elana Premack Sandler, an associate professor at Simmons School of Social Work who worked with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center on guidelines for developing prevention programs. “It is not helpful to know the exact details, as those details can sensationalize or glamorize death,” she says, which may make suicide seem more attractive to readers facing their own suicidal thoughts. If the deceased left a note, media outlets can include that information but should refrain from giving specifics on the note’s contents, according to Sandler.
Avoid language that criminalizes suicide. The phrase “committed suicide,” while commonly used, is discouraged by organizations like AFSP and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as the word “commit” is often associated with criminal actions. Instead, media outlets are encouraged to use “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself.”
Avoid language that inflates suicide’s prevalence. Referring to a “suicide epidemic” or an “explosion” of suicide rates, particularly after a widely-reported incident, may lead vulnerable people to believe that suicide is a widely accepted option, experts say. When suicide rates do rise—for societies as a whole, or for certain groups—outlets should report on the data without hyperbole.
Focus on the deceased’s life—not just their death. Spade “lived a beautiful life and contributed so much creatively, especially to people's individual experiences of joy,” Sandler says. “It is important to tell the stories of the lives of people who die by suicide, not just about their deaths. Those nuanced pictures provide a much more accurate portrayal.” Photographs, when included in a suicide-related story, should aim to present the deceased in a positive light; photos of the location, visibly distraught friends or family, or method of death should be avoided.
Always include suicide hotline numbers or links to other suicide prevention resources. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) should be included in any story written on suicide, according to Sandler. The media has broad influence in the wake of a high-profile suicide, she says, and “when that power is used to encourage people who are vulnerable to suicide risk to seek help, the media can make a difference.”
How Individuals and Communities Can Talk About Suicide
Those outside the media can also take steps to talk about suicide in a way that reduces the risk of possible harm:
Talk about suicide as mindfully as possible. “Suicide isn't something to talk about lightly,” Sandler says. It’s natural to want to talk about a celebrity’s death, particularly if it’s been highly publicized or appears unexpected—but “speaking sensitively, with an awareness that suicide is a personal issue and can be traumatic to individuals, families, and communities, is always important.”
Continue the conversation about depression and suicide. Many who have a personal connection to suicide may be reluctant to speak up about their experiences for fear of stigma, experts say, and the whirlwind conversations that follow a high-profile suicide may do little to mitigate that stigma. “These ‘teachable moments’ after the death by suicide of a high profile individual (can certainly be) helpful,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, the author of Living with Depression. “But real change comes if we can create an open dialogue” about suicide and depression that persists even after the news cycle has moved on.
Acknowledge that suicidal ideation and depression don’t discriminate—and may not always be obvious. “Depression doesn't care if you’re rich or famous, poor or homeless,” Serani says. “It doesn’t care if you’re ordinary or superlatively gifted.” When famous or wealthy people die by suicide, it’s common to feel as if they had everything going for them, Sandler says, but it’s critical to remember that “success does not protect anyone from struggle.”
Encourage anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek help. Resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line (reachable by texting HOME to 741741) are available 24/7 for individuals in distress, and evidence suggests that most forms of depression respond well to treatment. “Depression is not an experience that fades with the next sunrise or can be shaken off with a newfound attitude,” Serani says. But “with treatment, the brain begins to function normally again—and there should be no shame in reaching out for help.”