Recently there has been many reports on the media about suicides by young university students and young adults. Some media houses, and some social media activists have gone on an overdrive to report such incidents with all its fury.
Evidence suggests that the media can influence societal attitudes and beliefs to various social issues. This influence is especially strong for mental health issues, particularly suicide. Canadian newspaper coverage of the popular fictional Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, wherein the lead character dies by suicide in the final episode, generally adhered to core best practice media recommendations, and sensitively discussed suicide from various angles, prompting productive discussion and dialogue about youth suicide. These findings suggest that the media can be an ally in promoting dialogue and raising awareness of important public health issues such as suicide.
J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga all figure among celebrities who have contemplated suicide but found help and stepped back from the brink. U.S. study found a 10 percent increase in suicide mortality after the 2014 death of Robin Williams, American actor and comedian, which was partially attributed to inappropriate media coverage. Similar increases in suicide mortality were witnessed in Canada and Australia after the death of this well-known celebrity.
This phenomenon is known as ‘suicide contagion’ or ‘copycat suicide.’ Research has found that media coverage with details as to how a person died by suicide, may prompt someone vulnerable to identify with the individual and copy actions described in media coverage.
Greater the coverage of a suicide story higher the chances of finding a copycat.
WHO statistics indicate that more than 700 000 people die world over by suicide every year. Furthermore, for each suicide, there are more than 20 suicide attempts. Suicides and suicide attempts have a ripple effect that impacts on families, friends, colleagues, communities and societies. 77% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries. Ingestion of pesticide, hanging and firearms are among the most common methods of suicide globally.
While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, depression and alcohol use disorders) is well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness.
In addition, experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are also high amongst vulnerable groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees and migrants; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTQ2S+) persons; and prisoners. By far the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt.
Suicides are preventable. There are a number of measures that can be taken at every level – school, university, community, family – to prevent suicide and suicide attempts. World Health Organisation’s (WHO)’s approach to suicide prevention, recommends:-
- limit access to the means of suicide (e.g. pesticides, firearms, certain medications);
- foster socio-emotional life skills in adolescents;
- early identify, assess, manage and follow up anyone who is affected by suicidal behaviours.,
- interact with the media for responsible reporting of suicide;
Is there a need to regulate such reporting?
In Canada, Canada Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS) provides suicide prevention and support to the people of Canada. They have laid down best practices and recommendations geared to media and other organisations with suggested guidelines and practices on how to report and comment on suicide activities, whether in the media, social media sites or internal communiques. They recommend:-
- Health reporters, not crime reporters, are best positioned to cover suicides.
- Reports should generally avoid details of suicide methods, especially when unusual or novel methods are involved.
- Emergency resource links should be included in all articles that deal with suicide.
Specific for social-media:
- Providing information and resources to people who make suicide-related queries or posts;
- Including panic buttons that allow for rapid access to crisis services/hotlines;
- Providing mechanisms for users to report if they are concerned about someone with the possibility for rapid intervention; and
- Moderating forums that frequently include suicide-related postings and making sure to remove inappropriate posts.
- Ongoing collaboration between journalists and mental health professionals, acknowledging scientific evidence and the autonomy of journalists;
- All journalism schools include teaching of how to report responsibly and respectfully on the topic of suicide, including attention to issues related to ethics and social justice;
- Media training for mental health professionals who are likely to be called on to comment on suicide in the press; and
- Education for policy-makers and other prominent figures who may be asked to comment publicly on the topic of suicide.
The Austrian journalists recently altered the way they reported about suicide. Studies of that experience showed that after the changes, there was a significant reduction in suicide deaths across the country. Since then many other countries have put out recommendations.