Suicide Contagion Effect: Traditional Media and Social Media
There seem to be a lot more suicides in the news these days. There are also a lot more murders, kidnappings, earthquakes, tornadoes, and environmental disasters. It is hard to tell whether these events are, in fact, increasing in frequency or if the rapid and global nature of news dissemination just means that we hear about more of them.
In the Globe and Mail, Steve Ladurantaye wrote about how the taboo against reporting on suicide met its end. He wrote about a scenario two years ago, where the new editor of the Ottawa Citizen sent reporters out to attempt to interview families of suicide victims. In the story they wrote about one victim, they included the victim’s name, used the word “suicide” prominently, and chose details and language for the story that had the effect of sensationalizing it. Ottawa Citizen editor Gerry Nott argued that with so many young people dying of suicide, it was critical that they report on it, just as they would if there were a significant rise in mountain biking deaths.
However, Nott’s approach was a major departure from the way that newsrooms handled suicide previously. Ladurantaye wrote:
Canadian newsrooms have been averse to covering suicides for decades, deferring to medical studies that suggest publicizing suicide results is “contagion” – the idea that stories about young people killing themselves lead to more young people killing themselves and should be avoided.
In the past few years, most news outlets seem to have left the taboo behind and are following Nott’s lead. Some argue, however, that this isn’t the best approach and that any reporting on suicide needs to be done with extreme caution.
In a letter to the Toronto Star, Alisa Simon, Vice-President of Counseling Services and Programs at Kids Help Phone in Toronto, shared her thoughts on the ways to reduce suicide. She noted that the press has an important role to play and that responsible reporting on suicide does have a “dramatic and immediate reductive effect on suicide,” whereas “irresponsible media reporting on suicide appears to be linked to rising suicide rates.” She explained:
Mental health experts believe that excessive and insensitive coverage of suicides (including alarming statistics, glorifying profiles of the deceased, and pitying tone) inspires imitative behaviours (known as “suicide contagion”), and re-enforces stigma surrounding mental disorders.
To ensure that media avoid counter-productive coverage, major health agencies worldwide, including the Canadian Psychiatric Association, regularly release guidelines for media. They recommend press reduce suicide reporting overall; exclude information on suicide methods; avoid implying that suicide is “caused” by any single factor or event (such as bullying), and keep the word “suicide” out of headlines.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association’s Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide note that “there is a significant evidence-base demonstrating that media reporting of suicides is linked to copycat suicides among youth and young adults under 24 years of age. The guidelines suggest things to avoid and convey when writing about suicide.
- Details of the method
- The word “suicide” in the headline
- Photo(s) of the deceased
- Admiration of the deceased
- The idea that suicide is unexplainable
- Repetitive or excessive coverage
- Front page coverage
- Exciting reporting
- Romanticized reasons for the suicide
- Simplistic reasons for the suicide
- Approval of the suicide
- Alternatives to suicide (i.e. treatment)
- Community resource information for those with suicidal ideation
- Examples of a positive outcome of a suicidal crisis (i.e. calling a suicide hotline)
- Warning signs of suicidal behaviour
- How to approach a suicidal person
When the news media was restricted to trained journalists, ensuring that these guidelines were followed most of the time may have been possible. However, in the age of social media where everyone and anyone can share news with others and where traditional media outlets are competing with non-traditional media for eyeballs, these guidelines are less likely to be followed. People look to their own online networks to express grief over suicides in their own circle of friends or community. People converse with others on facebook or twitter in an attempt to find answers. People want to create awareness about the conditions that sometimes contribute to suicide. People do all of this, and more, without necessarily understanding the negative impact that it can have.
Among my own peer group on twitter, I’ve experienced two suicides and two attempted suicides within the past year. In the short span of twelve months, that effectively triples the number of suicides and attempted suicides that I have been exposed to among my peer group in my entire life. That doesn’t even begin to incorporate the number of additional suicides in my community and around the world that I have seen reported in the news or that I have even been involved in reporting on.
I’m thankful for the two friends who are still with us because our community jumped to action when they posted their suicide notes online. I’m thankful for the help that they have received and are still getting. I’m thankful for the many people every day who find the support that they need from friends online. I’m thankful for all of that, but telling their stories is more difficult than telling the stories of the deceased because of privacy concerns.
If others are seeing a similar increase and if reporting on suicide does truly lead to an increase in suicides, what can we do to stop it? People are, after all, just acting as human beings and not as trained journalists. Personally, I will take the guidelines provided by the Canadian Psychiatric Association to heart in terms of my own writing, both professionally and personally. Will you?
Image credit: Screen capture from Google News