Responsible media can save lives

When I found out Toronto experiences four times the amount of suicides compared to homicides, I was shocked. I suspect this is in part because homicides are reported in the news more than suicides. For years, journalists have been told they need to be careful in how they tell their stories about suicide, a major cause of preventable and premature death. This is because some evidence suggests sensationalized coverage is linked to copycat intentional self-harm. The result? Suicide becomes a hushed topic.

Recently Toronto Public Health brought suicide prevention into the spotlight by releasing a report outlining local recommendations. From this, the proposal of TTC subway barriers to restrict jumping has been emphasized, but responsible media reporting of suicide is a prevention strategy also worth further consideration.

Suicide is a sensitive topic, but a significant public health problem. In 2011, 3,728 people committed suicide in Canada, making it the ninth leading cause of death in the country.

In a systematic review of 56 studies, the majority found significant associations between media reporting and suicidality (suicidal acts or ideation). Several studies revealed coverage tends to exaggerate sensational suicides by dramatic methods, not representative of official suicide data.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) issued specific responsible reporting guidelines in 2009. They advocate avoiding details of the suicide method to limit imitation and not portraying these stories on the front page of newspapers. Also, photos and admiration of the deceased, the word “suicide” in the headline and oversimplified or romanticized reasons for the suicide are discouraged. The CASP expresses the importance of providing community resources and including warning signs of suicidal behaviour and alternative treatments.

Not everyone agrees with the CASP’s guidelines. Journalist Andre Picard and Dr. David Goldbloom, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada believe self-censoring suicide stories have not worked and the evidence used to back the guidelines is scientifically weak. Media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward suggests journalists adapt expert guidelines, not just copy them. The one guiding principle Ward suggests following is avoiding sensationalism.

There is some evidence that  the right kind of coverage can increase mental health awareness by educating the public, and can even encourage those at-risk to seek help. A study found a statistically significant increase in mental health visits to the local pediatric emergency department following media coverage of two high profile youth suicides in Ottawa. The first suicide was Daron Richardson, daughter of an Ottawa Senators assistant coach and next was Jamie Hubley, the son of an Ottawa’ city councilor. Both of these deaths received extensive media reporting with family interviews focusing on prevention and accompanying lists of resources for distressed youth.  In the month of Richardson’s death there was a 119 per cent increase in mental health visits compared to the same month the year before, which is 89 per cent higher than that year’s overall increase. However, no changes were found in mental health symptom severity or suicidal status. This suggests media coverage in the community may have heightened mental health awareness, but not suicidal thoughts.

Reporters are faced with a balancing act. On one hand there are pressures to reduce mental health stigma, but on the other public accounts should not evoke copycat behaviour. Perhaps the media should start conversations on suicidal thoughts and coping, which have been associated with a decrease in suicide rates. For example, media coverage focusing on individuals who curbed their suicidal plans and instead adopted positive coping strategies may be beneficial.

Responsible reporting requires a joint effort of reporters, suicide experts, psychiatrists and governments. It is important to not just close off the conversation, but rather use media as a public health tool to reduce stigma. With social media and the public being part of the dialogue, everyone must be aware of the impact of their words on this topic.  While the Internet poses new challenges such as online suicide pacts and “how to” guides, virtual communities can provide peer-to-peer support and have the potential for prevention applications. With social media’s decentralized structure, we can all play a role in reducing stigma and being advocates for change.

Together we need to be responsible in the manner in which we discuss suicide. Stories should not be sensationalized and our focus should be on prevention.

Common warning signs of suicide include suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, purposelessness, anxiety, feeling trapped, hopelessness, withdrawal, anger, recklessness and mood changes.  If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there is help. Contact a local crisis centre or go to the emergency room of your local hospital.

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Alisha Somji


Alisha Somji is a Master of Public Health student specializing in social and behavioural sciences at the University of Toronto. She completed a double major in kinesiology and media, information and technoculture (MIT) at Western University.

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