Suicide and depression have been brought to the forefront of American thought by the death of legendary comedian Robin Williams. His death, a shock to even his personal family and friends, opened a public conversation on suicide prevention and responsible reporting. In the days following his death, news outlets focused on the details of his suicide and well-meaning friends and colleagues used social media to voice their grief.
Although the media’s sensationalizing of this tragedy was expected, it could have extreme consequences. The CDC, NIH, and WHO all promote safe media reporting on suicides, including sticking to facts, avoiding key words, and most importantly, refraining from romanticizing suicide in the public spotlight. As the public voice of most organizations, it is important for communications and PR professionals to understand the importance of proper suicide reporting especially in the public health field.
A 2012 analysis of journalistic adherence to guidelines and their effects on suicide contagion has shown that implementing simple rules can have a drastic impact on copycat suicides (Bohana and Wang 2012). Likewise a study conducted in Canada following the death of a famous reporter by suicide, showed a significant increase in suicide deaths immediately following the incident (Tousignant et al 2005). Meanwhile, an important Austrian experiment showed the impact media reporting had on the rise in suicides following a well-publicized death. When death by suicide increased drastically in 1978 after the building of the subway in Vienna, researchers began to implement specific guidelines on local media in 1987. This included not sensationalizing the death, briefly reporting it, and offering resources for help. By 1988, few suicides were reported and researchers noted a decrease in suicide contagion, proving that media accounts of a suicide can have a definitive impact on suicide rates (Etzersdofer et al. 1992).
What can media personnel do to help deescalate the impact of suicide reporting on vulnerable people? Here are a few guidelines:
- Not referring to a suicide death as an attempt (failed or successful). This implies that success in committing suicide is ideal. Instead, use neutral descriptors such as died by suicide.
- Avoid any information that may promote imitation such as method, timing, and equipment.
- Do not refer to the suicide as a setting free or loss of suffering.
- Focus on the life and positive actions of the victim as opposed to the death.
- Provide the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline information and help break the social stigmas of seeking help.
More guidelines for responsible reporting can be found here.
Robin Williams’ death was a tragedy of the kind that happens to nearly 40,000 people every year in the United States alone. Although media reporting is not the only method for decreasing this number, it is extremely significant in an age where children and young adults alike are constantly exposed to constant modes of communication.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or idealization, please call the National Suicide Hotline today to speak confidentially to a trained counselor for free.
Myriam Bostwick is the Communications Director of a non-profit organization in New York City. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Health in Community Health Education and is most interested in the relationship between media, communications, and public health issues. She lives in Queens, NY, with her husband and two pets, Lily and Charlie. Follow Myriam on Twitter at @myriambostwick.