On Reporting Suicide – and why media guidelines matter

Whilst some areas of the media may choose to ignore the advice of charities when reporting suicide, evidence suggests using media guidelines can save lives.

© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Over the years there have been many studies into how irresponsible reporting can have an impact on suicide rates, so much so that most news organizations are now in agreement that there is a clear link between the two.

But whilst the majority has acknowledged this there are some within the industry, and the expanded blogosphere, who have failed in the past to heed the advice of mental health charities when reporting incidents of suicide.

Dating as far back as the release of Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, in 1774, individuals have always been suspicious of a correlation between representations of suicide in the media and cultural trends, i.e. copycat behaviour. In this particular example, following the book’s release, individuals strived to emulate the central character’s suicide, leading to a spike in similar activity. This became known as “The Werther Effect” and can be observed elsewhere in the media, most prominently in the reporting of suicide.

One example of this is a report of an inquest into self-poisoning in 1995. In this case, the reporting of the incident by several publications was believed by many to have influenced an increase in the number of intentional antifreeze poisonings reported to the British National Poisons Information Service. The reporting of this particular incident is believed to have been partially to blame for the increase because it highlighted the method of suicide in extensive detail.

The above is not an isolated case however; there are several other instances that support this argument. Another example that is believed to have influenced incidents of copycat behaviour is an article that was published in Hong Kong that gave details of a person’s suicide by burning charcoal in a confined space. Following this article there was a dramatic increase in the number of individuals using this method, the figure having risen from 0% to 10% over three years, with many blaming the media for how they reported this incident.

As mentioned before there are many who have noticed this correlation and are actively working to prevent such cases. Samaritans Chief Executive Catherine Johnstone is one of these. In 2010 she issued a strong warning to the press about the implications of reporting suicide, offering advice also to help journalists prevent incidents of copycat behaviour; most of which can now be viewed online on the Samaritans’ website.

Amongst this advice they argue that journalists should abstain from using ‘explicit or technical details’, whilst also avoiding brushing over the realities of suicide. Other advice also suggests that journalists should link the reader to relevant support and information to help them cope with the story. This is all in order so that they can help prevent any further cases from occurring in the future as a direct result of reporting the incident.

Evidence to suggest this approach works can be seen displayed on several different occasions. One high profile example of this was in 1994, following Kurt Cobain’s suicide. In many of the reports following the suicide of Kurt Cobain journalists purposely differentiated between his achievements in life and his untimely death, exploring the realities of suicide. In addition, they also discussed risk factors, and offered support to those experiencing suicidal feelings.

Many have argued that these measures were key in explaining why suicide rates did not increase in his hometown of Seattle following his death, even in spite of his influence and the high profile nature of his death.

Another key example that highlights the positive effect the media can have on reducing copycat behaviour is displayed by studies performed in both Toronto and Vienna, showing the impact of voluntary restrictions placed on the media when reporting railway suicides. The results of these studies showed that by applying certain restrictions to the reporting of railway suicides this led to a decrease in the number of suicides by the same method, the figure falling by an astounding 75%.

All of the above suggests that by adopting these measures we can prevent cases of copycat behaviour from occurring, or at least limit their frequency. This, as outlined above, can be achieved by investing more time, effort, and sensitivity into the way we report suicide, and also by offering help to those who may be distressed by the content of the reports.

If you suspect that yourself, or a loved one, is suffering from depression, you can contact Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) or visit their website here for guidance and support.

By Jack Yarwood

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Britain’s Male Suicide Rate Reveals Painful Truth About Masculinity

“Man up!” – this is a phrase that I heard all too often from a friend I’d previously believed I could trust with my innermost concerns. I was made to feel ashamed about my emotions, and to feel inadequate in regards to my so-called “masculinity”.

Fortunately, friends and family managed to successfully convince me to seek help, in spite of these powerful words and their effect on how I viewed my own mental illness. But others aren’t so lucky. This is where several mental health charities have stepped in.

Throughout history men have felt pressured into adopting traditionally masculine characteristics; they are expected by society to be confident, strong, and unemotional, often at the expense of personal expression and, in some cases, their own mental wellbeing. This insistence on adopting bold masculine traits has also created an unnecessary and harmful stumbling block for many men who might benefit from seeking treatment for issues of mental health. This is because, generally speaking, seeking treatment is considered by many of these individuals to be synonymous with defeat.

Although the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses is not reserved exclusively for men, it is arguably more prevalent in males than in females. This is in part due to the difference in the expectations placed upon both men and women. Studies have shown in fact that men are less likely to get diagnosed when suffering from depression than women, the expectations placed on men to be in control of their emotions being a contributory factor in causing this divide between the sexes.

Other factors believed to be responsible for this disparity are socio-economic reasons such as unemployment, relationship breakdowns, and the challenges of middle age. These factors are more likely to lead men to suicide than women, according to research by the charity Samaritans.

The above information, though startling enough, becomes incredibly alarming when one observes the difference in the number of men and women who have died from suicide in recent years. In 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 4590 men in the UK took their own life. This is a significantly higher figure than that which was recorded for women in the same year (1391).

It is safe to assume that the difference can once again be attributed in part due to gender, or more specifically the differences between how both men and women react to issues concerning mental health. Whereas women are more likely to be treated for depression men instead are at a higher risk of masking their problems with the abuse of alcohol or drugs as a response to their illness.

This is something that mental health charities have observed, and are now working to change. Charities like C.A.L.M, and Mind are actively working to dispel the myths associated with depression, offering specific information tailored towards both men and their partners. This information includes details on how to cope, as well as how also to spot the signs of depression in loved ones. They are joined in this mission by England’s biggest programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination, Time-To-Change.

C.A.L.M (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) is an organization dedicated solely to this purpose. It aims to get young men talking about their problems, offering a helpline for them to call in order to discuss their issues with others. C.A.L.M also has a website and a free publication supplying advice, and features on other topics relating to men. These topics include divorce, financial stress, and homelessness.

As well as this, Samaritans have launched a campaign entitled “We’re In Your Corner” in partnership with Network Rail. This campaign focuses on reaching men in mid-life, who are especially susceptible to mental health issues.

The aims of these charities are to get people talking about mental illness, to start a discussion; and offer appropriate advice to the individuals who need it most. In doing this they hope to open up more pathways for people to seek treatment.

Hopefully, through their continued support, the myths surrounding depression and mental health can be dispelled, meaning more men will be willing and able to seek the necessary help.

If you suspect that yourself, or a loved one, is suffering from depression, you can contact Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 (UK) or visit their website here for guidance and support.

You can also contact C.A.L.M’s helpline on 0800 585858. Their helpline is open every day from 5pm – midnight.

By Jack Yarwood