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Reporting on suicide: we need a nuanced approach; not simplistic catchcries

Whether and how the media should report on suicides is again a topic for public and media discussion.

Recent articles canvassing the issue include this one by Sally Jackson at The Australian, and this piece at The Drum by ABC radio presenter Madonna King.

Also at The Australian, Kate Legge reported that the Australian Press Council is reviewing the media’s handling of suicide in the wake of the recent Senate report, A Hidden Toll (PDF alert).

Meanwhile, LIFE Communications, a National Suicide Prevention Strategy project funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, has been running an online forum discussing reportage of suicide and self-harm in the media (you have to register to participate).

Some broader historical background is contained in this Australian Press Council submission from 2009 to the Senate inquiry. More background information can be found at Mindframe, the Department of Health and Ageing’s national strategy for promoting responsible and accurate reporting of suicide and mental illness.

Julian Disney, chair of the Australian Press Council, has been reported as saying that a distinction needs to be drawn between reporting on particular instances of suicide, which research shows can carry a risk of encouraging copycat events, and reporting about the issue in general. This sounds a sensible approach to Croakey.

Meanwhile, Barbara Hocking, Executive Director at SANE Australia, also argues the need for a balanced approach, and warns against “simplistic suggestions to talk more about suicide”.

What does the evidence say about media reporting and suicide?

Barbara Hocking writes:

When Julie* was 13, her brother Chris developed a mental illness. For many years Julie found it difficult to cope with her brother’s deteriorating mental health, which ended tragically, nine years later, when he took his own life.

Julie herself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was in her 20s. And while she manages her illness very well, with help from her psychiatrist and family, she has experienced suicidal feelings on many occasions. She did as recently as last month, when discussion in the media about whether there should be more media reporting about suicide reached, in her words, ‘a crescendo’.

So sensitive is this issue, that Julie says even when reports are well researched, considered and respectful, they can still trigger real despair about her loss and, on occasion, thoughts about taking her life can almost overwhelm her. She is not alone. Every day hundreds of Australians seriously consider taking their own lives. Every day at least six Australians die by suicide.

There is absolutely no doubt that suicide prevention is an important issue. Every death by suicide is a tragedy for the person involved and for family and friends who love them. We know that much can and must be done to reduce the numbers of people who feel so bereft that they believe taking their life is their only option.

However, such is the complexity surrounding discussion of suicide in the media, we must exercise great care to ensure that, inadvertently, we do no harm by re-traumatising Julie and others like her.

Which is where the Mindframe Initiative – which aims to encourage responsible, accurate and sensitive portrayals in the media of mental illness and suicide – comes in.

Supported by the Australian government, Mindframe has produced a resource for media professionals on reporting suicide. This draws on evidence that the way in which suicide is reported is significant for vulnerable people.

While some media outlets have interpreted this advice very cautiously, saying ‘we don’t report suicide at all’, the reality is (and contrary to claims of some commentators), that there has been increased public discussion about suicide in the Australian media for many years now. Research by the Media Monitoring project found news reporting of suicide in 2006/7 had more than doubled, when compared with 2000/01.

Recent interest in whether there should be even more reporting of suicide has been triggered by a 2010 Senate Committee report The Hidden Toll – Suicide in Australia and the government’s response.

One of the committee’s recommendations is for a review of the Mindframe guidelines. This review will provide an opportunity to clarify exactly what advice the guidelines give. It will also identify areas for new research to assess the merits of responsible reporting, so the media can be better advised on what they can safely and responsibly do, rather than on what not to do. This will be an important step to reassure critics that the guidelines are not designed to be obstructive.

The media undoubtedly has a major suicide prevention role to play – to raise community awareness and understanding that:

  • suicide has a catastrophic impact on people who are bereaved – describing their heartache and pain
  • help is available – providing Helpline and other appropriate contacts.
  • it is OK to ask for help – reassuring people that this is a strong and positive thing to do
  • good services and social supports can reduce the risk – discussing how people have been helped and advocating for more of these services.

However, on occasion, media reporting can be harmful. There is mounting, strong evidence that the inclusion of unnecessary details such as method or location, or sensationalising or glorifying the issue, can encourage ‘copy-cat’ suicides by vulnerable people. This is precisely the situation Mindframe is working to avoid.

The Australian media is already supporting community awareness initiatives such as the national RUOK? Day,  which focuses on getting people to talk and encouraging vulnerable or distressed people to seek help. RUOK? Day takes note of the existing evidence on safe ways to cover the issue and has had great results in its first couple of years.

We all want the same outcome – more attention to this major public health concern so that vulnerable people are encouraged to seek help and that when they do, the services are there for them.

Reporting suicide in the media is a balancing act. As Julie’s story shows, simplistic suggestions to ‘talk more about suicide’ may inadvertently cause harm to people we are trying the hardest to protect.

• Barbara Hocking has held the position of Executive Director at SANE Australia since 1995. Hocking also represents community perspectives on a number of committees and advisory groups, including the Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Council and the National Media and Mental Health group.

*name has been changed.

***

For help and more information

If you require immediate help please contact either Lifeline on 13 11 14 or (if you are under 18 years old) Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800.

Both of these services can help you or, if necessary, refer you on to appropriate mental health support networks.

GROW Support Groups (National) – 1800 558 268

Suicide Call Back Service (National) – 1300 659 467

Help/Information Lines:

beyondblue info line (National) – 1300 22 4636

SANE Australia Helpline (National) – 1800 187 263

Australian Psychological Society Referral Line (National) 1800 333 497

***

Update, 26 April

For a wrap of related developments in the US, see this piece from the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Comments 2

  1. Ultimo167 says:

    I have counselled many men who had been or who were currently suicidal. Without exception, what motivated those men to think about or attempt suicide never had anything to do with media reporting of suicide, or the lack thereof. Like suicide itself, their motivation to (possibly) end their own lives was diverse and complex, and not easily reduced to a dumbed down fallacy like ‘suicidal people are depressed’.

    I am sure that by shrouding suicide in taboo and mystique, and by constructing its potential subjects as perpetually vulnerable and ‘at risk’, the suicide prevention industry gives itself plenty of wiggle room to escape such pressing questions as, ‘where’s the evidence?’. For example, where’s the evidence that gay youth are actually at much higher risk of completing suicide than their straight counterparts?

    The fact is, there is none. It is simply a myth, perpetuated by sensitivity and silence.

    Time, I say, for some open, critically aware debate about suicide…

  2. carolinestorm@iinet.net.au says:

    The vexed question of suicide reporting persists. Sally Jackson brings up the “2191 suicides of 2008”, which takes it into very murky waters: rates published in Australia should not be believed.
    The ABS reports 2098 suicides in 2004. The WHO reports Australian suicides in 2004 as a rate of 21.1/100,000 (16.7 male, 4.4 female), obviously from data supplied by our bureaucrats/agencies. I see those data as accurate, not believing they would lie to the WHO. The population in 2004 was 20,200,00; using WHO figures, this equates to 4,262 Australian suicides in 2004. No new data have been sent from here and the WHO uses the same rate in 2008, 21.1/100,000. In 2008 our population was 21,180,000. This equates to 4469 suicides in 2008; This is more than twice the number reported to us, 2191 suicides. This deception is relevant to the article. It makes even more opaque the question of our knowledge of suicide, its prevalence and its reporting.
    I see suicide as a fact of life, suffering and death; I have always spoken freely of my daughter’s tragic death by suicide, hoping others will do so as well, and more and more of us are speaking out. This can only help the seriously mentally ill of today.
    I agree with Julian Disney that reporting of suicide should be “good quality and responsible”. The question of its reporting leading to further suicide needs to be thrashed out, but I agree with Pat McGorry that the risks appear to be overstated. Barbara Hocking’s description of media reporting of suicide as a “balancing act” is apt. Attitudes to suicide reporting will change. I am from a long-ago childhood where “cancer” was a whispered word we were not supposed to hear. Suicide will also be one day seen as a tragic yet normal part of what it is to be human, to live and to die.
    Until that day, we must hammer away at two important matters: firstly, the culpability of governments and bureaucrats lying, publishing false death rates (a base insult to our beloved dead) so that underfunding and undertreating of the seriously mentally ill may continue; secondly, the fact that the public must be made aware of the constantly rising suicide rate, possibly becoming more understanding of serious mental illness and its ability to destroy a once-normal person.
    We need a box graph, published every month so that it becomes expected, of suicide numbers in every state and territory for the previous month. An appointment needs to be made, medico-legal perhaps, to collate numbers through contact with Coroners’ Offices. A problem now is that some suicides are not named as such after pleading by desperate families because of insurance/financial concerns or from shame of a family suicide. Coroners would have to feel free to enumerate every suicide and describe its method (necessary for research) without needing to name the person. Their lapse is worth countenancing in order, at last and possibly for the first time, to obtain accurate numbers of completed suicides.
    Such a regularly published record dispenses with the problems of privacy, inaccuracy of coroners’ figures, the question of copying of suicides and the matter presented by Barbara, of suicide reports affecting people who are themselves ill.
    I don’t see this as difficult to do. I do see it as a sensible solution to the problem.

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