How Should We Report on Suicide?

As someone who prides herself in being the loud-mouthed mental health champion who always encourages people to seek help, I must admit, last week hit me hard. Like many of you, I was bombarded by the news of the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as the new CDC report on the rise in suicide rates across the country.

Invisible Illness in the Spotlight

Whenever someone in the spotlight—someone like Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell or Avicii—takes their own life, suddenly there is a frenzied uproar amongst many media outlets. The public is then exposed to sensationalized language, therefore prompting questions or comments like, “How could someone who has everything want even more attention?” or “They killed themselves because they were selfish and left behind their young children.” These thoughts are not only insensitive, they are misguided. It’s this misunderstanding of mental health conditions that then reinforces the stigma against those with mental illness. The kind of reporting and talk around suicide following a celebrity’s death is not only judgmental—it is dangerous. It means that as a society, we are ignoring the fact that we are contributing to the risk of suicide.

“This is not a matter of being ‘politically correct.’ It’s a matter of saving lives.”

So, after reflecting over the past couple of weeks, I figured it was time to set the record straight. Ultimately, the media failed their readers by inappropriately reporting on Kate Spade’s death (they detailed the method she used). And learning about method or plan that was used by another may have been one of the contributing factors to Anthony Bourdain’s death, as he ended his life in the same way that Spade ended hers. Journalists and media personalities who reported on these two individuals only one week ago failed those who may already be facing a really difficult time in their life, having a hard time coping with their mental health condition, or already experiencing suicidal thoughts. Just as movies and TV shows like 13 Reasons Why tend to aim for dramatization and glamorization in depicting taboo topics, this time around the media did not follow suicide reporting guidelines. Thus, they put those at risk of suicide in even more danger.

Suicide Reporting Guidelines

With all this in mind, I’d like to share one of the most important pieces of writing I have seen in a long time: Why Suicide Reporting Guidelines Matter. I wanted to highlight some key recommendations from the piece below, for anyone who may be reporting on suicide or even just talking about suicide-related matters in everyday conversation. Much gratitude to the author, Laura Greenstein, for this insightful and much-needed piece.

“Suicide is not a subject that should be avoided, but rather, handled carefully and thoughtfully—the way the suicide guidelines have clearly outlined. For those who believe the recommendations were created to prevent offensive language or spare people’s feelings, please keep in mind that their purpose is so much more than that. This is not a matter of being ‘politically correct.’ It’s a matter of saving lives.”

“Here are some other important recommendations to follow:

Inform, Don’t Sensationalize

  • Don’t include suicide in the headline. For example, ‘Kate Spade Dead at 55.’
  • Don’t use images of the location or method of death, grieving loved ones, memorials or funerals; instead use school, work or family photos.
  • If there was a note from the deceased, do not detail what the note contained or refer to it as a ‘suicide note.’

Choose Your Words Carefully

  • When describing research or studies on suicide, use words like ‘increase’ or ‘rise’ rather than ‘epidemic’ or ‘skyrocketing.’
  • Do not refer to suicide as ‘successful,’ ‘unsuccessful’ or a ‘failed attempt.’ Do not use the term ‘committed suicide.’ Instead use ‘died by suicide,’ ‘completed suicide,’ ‘killed him/herself,’ or ‘ended his/her life.’
  • Do not describe a suicide as ‘inexplicable’ or ‘without warning.’

Report on Suicide as a Public Health Issue

  • Include the warning signs of suicide and a ‘what to do’ sidebar, if possible.
  • Do not report on suicide the same way you would report a crime.
  • Seek advice from suicide prevention experts rather than quoting/interviewing police or first responders.”

Read the full article at NAMI.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis, know that you are not alone and help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They can connect you with local crisis centers that are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone, you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741; Peer volunteers are available to those in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Hotlines around the world can be found at the Buddy Project


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