A sensitive approach to talking about suicide can make a real difference to how people discuss this stigmatized topic
Sometime back I was invited to speak at a Women’s Day program that was sponsored by a well-known radio broadcast station. After I completed speaking, the radio jockey (RJ) who was compering the program commended me for being an inspiration. Especially as—he added, “My husband had committed suicide.”
This incident highlights several problematic issues regarding the portrayal of suicide by media professionals. First, the RJ had no business revealing my status as a survivor of suicide loss without my consent; particularly because I had chosen not to reveal it in my speech as it didn’t seem relevant in that context. By having done so he made an out-of-context reference to suicide, sensationalized it and played to the gallery. Second, the use of the phrase “Committed suicide” places it in a context of criminality which only perpetuates the taboo around the issue. Here he could have argued that his intention was well-meaning, but its impact on me was violative and intrusive.
Suicide is a serious public health issue. Its prevention and control is a daunting challenge. Suicide prevention efforts require a convergence of various stakeholders – health care providers, law enforcement, media, government, social agencies, religious leaders, families, and communities. When we initiated SPEAK — a Madurai-based suicide prevention initiative we invited media professionals in the city for a program on responsible reporting of suicide in the media. Only two people turned up.
Suicide is a complex and complicated issue with long-term physical, psychological, social and emotional consequences for survivors of suicide attempts and suicide loss. Globally, around 800,000 people die of suicide every year and at least six people are impacted by every suicide loss. The media through its enormous reach and influence in shaping, influencing public opinion and initiating attitudinal shift has a huge role in this matter.
Here are a set of non-negotiable guidelines for responsible and sensitive reporting of suicide in the media:
Focus on accurate and responsible reporting of suicide: Suicide is a taboo shrouded in the ‘4S’, stigma, shame, secrecy, and silence. Reporting on suicide because it is newsworthy and so, sensationalizing it; normalizing it or presenting suicide as a solution to problems only furthers myths and misconceptions.
Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide: Suicide is the result of a convergence of multiple factors – biological, psychological, social and environmental. It is never the result of any one factor. But most media reports focus on that one single factor, such as failure in an exam or difficult interpersonal relationships as the cause of suicide. In reality, this reported reason is only a trigger and not indicative of the actual situation.
Describe suicide trends accurately, and without alarm: Use denotive language; not hyperboles. For example, “Suicide is rising,” is correct but using terms like “Epic," or “Skyrocketing” is not.
Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide: Suicide is neither a crime nor a sin. Nor is it an act of cowardice or heroism. Extending this logic, suicide victims and survivors of suicide attempts are not heroes, zeroes or cowards.
Avoid using the word suicide in headlines and prominent placing of the story on the front page or the crime page: This involves being aware of what contributes to newsworthiness and what contributes to sensationalism. Sensationalistic coverage can trigger vulnerable people to attempt suicide; especially if the news is about a celebrity suicide.
Use neutral headlines. While curiosity amongst readers about what happened is inevitable, it doesn’t take away the requirement for sensitivity and responsibility while writing the piece.
Avoid insensitive use of language: Language mirrors thoughts and in turn reflects societal attitudes. Avoid using words such as “Committed suicide” (as it situates suicide within a criminal framework), refrain from out-of-context use of suicide and/or insensitive usage such as “Unsuccessful suicide,” “Suicide epidemic” or “Political suicide.” These terms reinforce negative stereotypes. Instead, sensitive and informed usage addresses the issue soundly. For example, as opposed to“Committed suicide,” use “Died of suicide or death by suicide.” Replace “Suicide epidemic” with “Increasing rates of suicide.”
Avoid explicit description of the method of suicide: Such descriptions violate the dignity and privacy of the deceased and their families. They are also potential triggers for people who are experiencing suicidal ideation.
Avoid using pictures or videos of the deceased and their families; don’t publish their suicide notes: Survivors of suicide loss are often traumatized by the incident. Publishing such material is violative of their dignity and privacy. In such instances, the dignity of the deceased is equally important. If you are required to publish a picture, use a picture of the person from earlier times.
Provide information on where to seek help: Including a comprehensive list of resources of where to seek help sends out a strong message that suicide is preventable. Publish information that is relevant to suicide attempt survivors, that enables them to seek appropriate psychosocial intervention and support, and that helps survivors of suicide loss rebuild their lives after the tragedy.
Show consideration for survivors of suicide loss: Refrain from asking for interviews, soundbytes, and photographs in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Respecting their pain and their right to dignity is non-negotiable; your requirement of information that will make the piece more newsworthy is not of equal importance here.
Weave in the larger issues surrounding suicide: This is a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness about the public health aspect of suicide. Include relevant statistics, quote experts in suicidology and mental health, include short infographics that list the warning signs of suicide and how every person can help in its prevention.
Anchor stories in optimism and hope: Include testimonials from experts (about how suicide can be prevented with timely intervention), suicide attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss who have rebuilt their lives with appropriate intervention and moved through the tragedy to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Last but certainly not least, please don’t judge or label what most of us cannot even remotely understand unless we have had the lived experience for it.
Dr Nandini Murali is a communications, gender, and diversity professional. In April 2017, she established SPEAK, an initiative of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health. She also established Bounce Forward, an initiative to help people heal and transform through loss.
- 'Reporting On Suicide' by Cindi Deutschman-Ruitz, https://www.poynter.org/archive/2003/reporting-on-suicide/, last accessed on 14th June 2019
- 'Preventing Suicide: A Resource for media professionals', by World Health Organization (WHO) and International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf, last accessed on 14th June 2019