How to Report on Suicide
Suicide is a major public health issue, and is the 3rd leading cause of death among all 15 to 24 year olds in the United States (CDC, 2012). Among that age group, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are more than three times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers (Garofalo et al 1999). Suicide is a sensitive and emotional subject, and the way that journalists and others report on suicide can impact those who read about it. For example, research has shown that how journalists report on suicide can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals (e.g., Hawton & Williams, 2002; Etzersdorfer & Sonneck, 1998).
To raise awareness about this issue, IMPACT Program founder and director, Dr. Brian Mustanski, will be presenting on some of his research at a two day workshop on “Covering Suicide,” sponsored by the Thomas Scattergood Foundation for Behavioral Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Joining Dr. Mustanski will be several esteemed faculty in Psychiatry, Communications, and Psychology, as well as reporters, documentary filmmakers, and authors who have tacked the difficult topic of suicide. Full biographies, and a description of the event, are available on the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma site.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (2012) has the following recommendations for journalists and others sharing information about suicide.
> Report on suicide as a public health issue.
> Inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence.
> Carefully investigate the most recent CDC data and use non-sensational words like “rise” or “higher.”
> Most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs. Include “Warning Signs” and “What to Do” in your article if possible.
> Seek advice from suicide prevention experts.
> Describe an individual’s death with the phrases “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself.
> Use a school/work or family photo of the deceased; include hotline logo or local crisis phone numbers.
If you are reporting online, or contributing to a blog, AFSP has additional recommendations.
> Bloggers, citizen journalists and public commentators can help reduce risk of contagion with posts or links to treatment services, warning signs and suicide hotlines.
> Include stories of hope and recovery, information on how to overcome suicidal thinking and increase coping skills.
> The potential for online reports, photos/videos and stories to go viral makes it vital that online coverage of suicide follow site or industry safety recommendations.
> Social networking sites often become memorials to the deceased and should be monitored for hurtful comments and for statements that others are considering suicide. Message board guidelines, policies and procedures could support removal of inappropriate and/or insensitive posts.
Find these guidelines, and further information, at www.ReportingOnSuicide.org.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2012). Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. Available at http://www.afsp.org/files/Misc_/recommendations.pdf or online at www.ReportingOnSuicide.org . Last accessed 2012 September 19.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS). Leading Causes of Death Reports. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html. Last accessed 2012 September 19.
Etzersdorfer, E., & Sonneck, G. (1998). Preventing suicide by influencing mass-media reporting. The Viennese experience 1980-1996. Archives of Suicide Research, 4, 67-74.
Garofalo, R., Wolf, R. C., Wissow, L. S., Woods, E. R., & Goodman, E. (1999). Sexual orientation and risk of suicide attempts among a representative sample of youth. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 53(5), 487-493.
Hawton, K., & Williams, K. (2002). Influences of the media on suicide. British Medical Journal. 325(7377): 1374–1375.