TORONTO – Journalists face an ethical challenge when writing about the issue of suicide or a celebrity who has taken their own life: how to report on such deaths without prompting vulnerable people to copy this act of desperation.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) has issued an updated set of guidelines on the subject, which suggest ways the media can responsibly frame their reports to try to prevent “suicide contagion” by providing context around the issues that lead some people to take their own lives.
“One of the things we really want to encourage journalists to do is to provide that context and to make sure that people are aware that there’s no reason that people have to die from suicide,” said Dr. Mark Sinyor, lead author of the recommendations.
“And on the rare instances in which it happens, it’s a tragic missed opportunity to have gotten help.”
Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said research shows that media reports about people who have died by their own hand can influence people struggling with depression and other mood disorders, leading to higher rates of suicide.
But research has also found that reports about people overcoming a suicidal crisis by seeking help appear to lower rates of such deaths.
For instance, a recent study found that after widespread media reports about the suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams in 2014, there was a significant jump in self-inflicted deaths among the populace in the U.S.
Yet when Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994 in Seattle where the Nirvana frontman lived, media reports praised the man and his accomplishments but stated his suicide “was the wrong thing to do” and provided information about suicide crisis lines, said Sinyor. Following the musician’s death, suicide rates in the area remained stable, but calls to hotlines rose substantially.
“While we’ve been quite preoccupied as a field about copycats and suicide contagion, in fact the key point is that all kinds of behaviour is contagious and coping and resilience are contagious as well,” he said.
“As a mood disorders expert, one thing important to me is that the overwhelming majority of people who think about suicide find paths to resilience. They don’t die by suicide.”
Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star, welcomed the guidelines, saying that because suicide is such a sensitive subject, any thinking that journalists can engage in on the topic is valuable.
“Our policy on suicide has been very simple for a long time,” she said Monday. “We generally don’t cover suicide unless a case can be made that it’s newsworthy, and it always involves a discussion with the editor.”
The guidelines provide a list of reporting elements that should be avoided — including the method used — as well as those to include, such as alternatives to taking one’s life: seeking help through community counselling resources, calling a suicide prevention hotline or seeking help at a local hospital emergency department.
Both mainstream and social media platforms are asked to include links to emergency resources within any report on suicide to encourage susceptible people — who may conclude that death is their only way out — to seek help.
“Now that everything is online, the recommendations are to try to embed that information in any article that has the topic, including things like a panic button … so a vulnerable reader (could) actually click and be immediately directed to that crisis service,” Sinyor said.
There’s been debate over the years about the responsibility of journalists writing about suicide to include such resources in their news reports, a recommendation that’s also included in the World Health Organization’s media guidelines from more than a decade ago, English said.
“If the people who work closely with suicides believe there is a risk of copycat suicides or that it somehow initiates trauma, then if we’ve got space to say ‘Here’s where you can get help,’ I think there is value in that,” she said.
The CPA guidelines are an updated version of recommendations first issued in 2009 and now also include advice for social media platforms, which have expanded in scope and influence over the last decade.
“This really takes account of the fact that while newspapers and radio and television still have editors and people in charge, social media is a runaway train,” said Dr. David Goldbloom, senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who was not involved in developing the guidelines.
“So recognizing that there is a qualitative difference between what happens on social media versus what happens in traditional journalism is also an important step forward, because they’re talking about how do we collaborate with social media producers, Facebook and others, to try to act in the best interests of people.”
The psychiatrist said the guidelines have been produced in a spirit of collaboration with journalists, and they come at a time when there is greater public openness about mental health issues and campaigns to reduce stigma around those who struggle with mental disorders.
“So mental illness is not as secretive a subject as a decade ago … there is not a conspiracy of silence around the reality of suicide,” said Goldbloom, adding that the recommendations encourage journalists and the public to recognize that suicidal behaviour occurs in a context “and the commonest context is mental illness.”
“Flushing out the reporting in ways that both talk about the context and encourage people to seek help and even produce direction toward resources is, I think, a more nuanced approach than ‘If it bleeds, it leads.'”
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Canadian Suicide Prevention Services: For 24/7 help, Phone 1-833-456-4566; Chat: www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/; Text 45645
CPA guidelines for journalists: https://www.cpa-apc.org/wp-content/uploads/Media-Guidelines-Suicide-Reporting-EN-2018.pdf
— Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.