Suicide Coverage Can Amplify Problem

A national panel of experts in suicide, behavioral science and the media cautions and advises journalists on how to report this sensitive subject.

A national panel of experts in behavioral science, suicide and the media has developed specific recommendations for the media on how to report acts of suicide. These recommendations are intended both to help reduce the copycat effect and to provide accurate and helpful information to the public about suicide.

The panel cites research on media coverage that indicates that journalists often glamorize suicide or idealize those who have taken their own lives, thus "portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act [which] may encourage others to identify with the victim." Describing suicide in this way can lead to a contagion effect, the researchers conclude.

"Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media" was drafted by representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of the Surgeon General, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Annenberg Public Policy Center.


How the media can help

The media can help to educate the public about suicide prevention, according to the researchers, by informing readers and viewers "about the likely causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in suicide rates, and recent treatment advances." Applying these principles — and avoiding sensationalistic reporting on suicides — have been shown to decrease suicide rates, they state.

Current clinical information on suicide and mental illness is included in the report, including these facts:

  • More than 90 percent of suicide victims have significant, untreated psychiatric illnesses at the time of their death.

  • Mood disorders and substance abuse greatly increase the risk of suicide, especially for adolescents and young adults.

  • Depressed individuals who display open aggression, anxiety or agitation are at significantly greater risk of suicide.


Family interviews can be problematic

Interviews with grieving family members soon after a suicide may not be a good practice, the report suggests. "Responses my be extreme, problems may be minimized, and motives may be complicated. Accounts based on these initial reactions are often unreliable."

While covering suicide is often a necessity, journalists can include information that can help the public view suicide more accurately. The report suggests such themes as:

  • Trends in suicide rates

  • Recent treatment advances

  • Stories of how treatment was life-saving

  • Stories how people overcame despair without attempting suicide

  • Myths about suicide

  • Warning signs

  • Actions that individuals can take to prevent suicide by others

"This report provides useful guidelines for journalists who report on suicide," says Roger Simpson, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "The researchers offer a current mental-health perspective that's highly relevant to journalistic practice. The more journalists know about suicide, the more accurate and sensitively written their stories will be."