The way we discuss suicide can unintentionally cause harm, but it doesn’t have to
By Leah Fessler
[M]any people are discussing and grieving fashion designer Kate Spade’s death, apparently by suicide. And in these moments, it becomes essential to discussing suicide as safely as possible.
Whether you knew the person who lost their life personally or as a public figure, whether you’re speaking in private, public, or as a member of the press, the way you discuss suicide can affect those around you. By following a few guidelines outlined by suicide prevention specialists and public health practitioners, you can minimize some risks.
What is suicide contagion?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates among adolescents and young adults have increased sharply in recent decades. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people 10 to 24, and lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. In a national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt in their lifetime and 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
Adolescents and young adults who die by suicide are less likely to be clinically depressed or to have certain other mental disorders that are important risk factors for suicide among persons in all age groups, says the CDC. This reality has motivated research on other preventable risk factors for suicide among young people.
“One risk factor that has emerged from this research is suicide ‘contagion,’ a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide,” the CDC explains. “Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas. In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides. The effect of contagion appears to be strongest among adolescents, and several well publicized ‘clusters’ among young persons have occurred.”
How to talk about suicide
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there are three primary tips to follow when discussing suicide with peers or on social media:
Colloquial as the phrase “committed suicide” has become, it’s inappropriate because it’s largely linked to the Catholic doctrine that suicide is a mortal sin. So by saying someone “committed suicide,” you can unintentionally imply that this person committed a kind of crime.
Excluding graphic details of the way someone took their life is advised because doing so can glamorize the act, and become triggering for those who are living with depression or suicidal ideation. The same principle applies to describing suicide notes, or locations of death, which can be especially damaging when the person who has taken their life is famous, as the general public’s fixation with learning all the details can easily make the tragic, deeply complex act seem more like a television drama.
How to write about suicide as a reporter and on social media
The imperative to discuss suicide safely is particularly important for journalists, as media descriptions feed impressions of a public figure’s death. According to ReportingOnSuicide.org, “more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage.”
Organizations such as Samaritans and the CDC, provide highly specific media guidelines and the research behind why careful language can help prevent contagion. Here are some of the most-cited guidelines reporters, producers and social media contributors should follow:
Keep your writing concise and factual. This helps avoid simplistic explanations for suicide. “Suicide is never the result of a single factor or event, but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems,” explains the CDC. “Public officials and the media should carefully explain that the final precipitating event was not the only cause of a given suicide. Most persons who have committed suicide have had a history of problems that may not have been acknowledged during the acute aftermath of the suicide. Cataloguing the problems that could have played a causative role in a suicide is not necessary, but acknowledgment of these problems is recommended.”
Do not glorify or sensationalize suicide. “News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person’s death,” the CDC continues. The CDC cites the danger of repetitive and ongoing coverage and the presentation of details or dramatic photographs related to the suicide, including photographs of the funeral, the deceased person’s bedroom, or the site of the suicide.
Do not only focus on the deceased person’s positive qualities. “For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person ‘was a great kid’ or ‘had a bright future,’ and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced,” writes the CDC. “As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer’s problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons—especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.”
Highlight research based on data. Instead of referring to recent suicides as “epidemic” or “skyrocketing,” describing a suicide as inexplicable or “without warning,” or quoting and interviewing police or first responders about the causes of suicide, discuss suicide as a public health issue backed by the most recent CDC statistics and less colorful words like ‘”rise” or “higher,” ReportingOnSuicide.org advises. Avoid oversimplifying the causes or perceived triggers of suicide—like a single accident, loss of job, breakup, or bereavement.
While some people who die by suicide do not display warning signs, the vast majority do. Share links to organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provide detailed education on suicide warning signs and risk factors.
Provide suicide prevention resources. While people often avoid discussing mental health issues, talking about suicide is key to preventing it. Any reporting on suicide should include the message that depression is treatable, suicide is preventable, and ending the stigma around mental health requires honest dialogue. Resources such as Crisis Text Line and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provide education, resources, and crisis intervention. These resources are free of charge and available any hour of the day:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255): A free, 24/7 confidential service that provides people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.
- The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255, press 1: The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line connect veterans and service members, families and friends with qualified, caring US Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text.
- Crisis Text Line 741-741: A free text-message service providing support to anyone in crisis. Text 741-741 to immediately connect with a trained crisis counselor.
- Here is a comprehensive list of suicide crisis lines worldwide.
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