In opening last year’s suicide prevention conference, Federal Minister Larry Anthony MP, said, “One suicide is one suicide too many.” It’s a sentiment shared by most Australians. Male or female, young or old, the senseless loss of life to suicide in our country is difficult to understand and more difficult to prevent. However there is evidence that the way in which suicide is reported in the media can influence self-harm and copycat behaviours, implying that responsible media coverage is vital as a prevention strategy. Of major concern is the scepticism amongst journalists that reporting influences suicidal behaviours, which results in far too many articles which do not observe the guidelines.
Working for a national charity helping people with mental illness, I look after the day-day-function of SANE Australia’s StigmaWatch program. StigmaWatch confronts stigma and irresponsible coverage of suicide in the media. As part of the program’s function, I have cause to monitor and address reporting of suicide and mental illness, using the guidelines set out in Reporting Suicide and Mental Illness: A Resource for Media Professionals.
This resource, published by the Commonwealth of Australia after extensive consultation and testing with key media and mental health organisations, is available to all media professionals in hard copy and on the Internet. It covers seven issues of importance when reporting suicide, the most important of these are: taking care not to glamorise or sensationalise suicide, as in the case of a celebrity death; the use of language, for example referring to suicide attempt as “unsuccessful” or “failed”; the story be placed in context, by explaining the underlying cause of a death, such as untreated depression; and that the method and location not be detailed. The reporting guidelines clearly request that journalists “don’t be explicit about method”, and yet this is the most frequent issue reported to StigmaWatch in relation to suicide.
The following is a reproduction of the Quick Reference card provided on the Mindframe website available at www.mindframe-media.info:
Why should I run the story?
Consider whether the story needs to be run at all, and how many suicide stories you have run in the last month. A succession of stories can promote a dose response factor and normalise suicidal behaviour as an acceptable option.
Check the language you use does not glamorise or sensationalise suicide, or present suicide as a solution to problems – eg consider using “non-fatal” not “unsuccessful”, “increasing rates” rather than “suicide epidemic”. Use “died by suicide” or “experienced depression” rather than describing the person as a “suicide” or a “depressive”. Use the term “suicide” sparingly.
Don’t be explicit about method
Most members of the media follow a code – written or unwritten – that the method and location of suicide is not described, displayed or photographed. A step-by-step description can prompt some vulnerable people to act.
Celebrity suicide is often reported where it is considered to be in the public interest. Coverage of celebrity suicide can glamorise or prompt imitation suicide. Avoid descriptions of the method of suicide and seek comment on the wastefulness of the act.
Positioning the story
Some evidence suggests a link between prominent placement of suicide stories and copycat suicide. Position the story on the inside pages of a paper, magazine or journal, in the second or third break of TV news, or further down the order of radio reports.
Interviewing the bereaved
The bereaved are often at risk of suicide themselves. Follow media codes of practice on privacy, grief and trauma when reporting personal tragedy.
Place the story in context
Many people who die by suicide have a mental disorder or a drug-related illness. Reporting the underlying causes of suicide can help dispel myths that suicide is not related to a person’s mental state.
Include helpline contacts
Include phone numbers and contact details for support services. This provides immediate support for those who may have been distressed, or prompted to act, by your story.
The guidelines were developed after Australian researchers studied media reporting of suicide over a 12-month period. The study found that an alarming 50 per cent of the articles detailed the method of suicide, 41.7 per cent used language implying that death was a desirable outcome, and 16.9 per cent of articles were run prominently. Almost 30 per cent used suicide in the headline, and 13.5 per cent used graphics related to the death. The researchers concluded that a link exists between media reporting and deaths by suicide, and in some cases the link was causal.
It must be said that in general the media report suicide responsibly. However there is a range of journalists who, sadly, continue to detail the method of suicide, sensationalise the issue and report outside of the guidelines. They ignore credible research showing not only the danger of such reporting to vulnerable people, but the influence of responsible reporting in prevention. While there is no single answer to preventing suicide, surely the research suggests an obvious starting point is to assist the most vulnerable in our society – people living with mental illness – by insisting our media outlets take the issue seriously.
Australians with mental illness are at much greater risk of suicide than the general population, and are especially vulnerable in the year following discharge from hospital. One third of males and more than half of females in a West Australian study were found to have a diagnosed mental illness in the year preceding their death. Seventy per cent of people living with psychotic illnesses, such as schizophrenia, have contemplated or attempted suicide.
You can help by monitoring the media for stories that contravene the guidelines. Write to the outlet concerned and let them know where they can access guidelines. You can also report the incident to SANE StigmaWatch.
The SANE Guide to Staying Alive
SANE Australia recently published a new SANE Guide aimed at keeping Australians with a mental illness alive. The SANE Guide to Staying Alive provides practical advice and hope to people with a mental illness whose lives are plagued by suicidal thoughts. The Guide has been written to help people recognise when they are at risk of suicidal feelings, what support they need, and to understand what they can do to get on with life again after an attempt.
The SANE Guide to Staying Alive is available from SANE Australia for $9.00 plus postage and handling. To order call 1800 688 382 or visit the SANE website.