First, we have to say we don’t know whether Dallas Cowboys receiver
Terrell Owens actually did try to take his own life Tuesday. He says he didn’t and he says his publicist’s call to 911 was a case of a misunderstanding.
happened, it is an opportunity for journalists to talk about suicide,
which is the 11th leading cause of death in this country (far higher
than homicide) according to the National
Institute of Mental Health. For men overall, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death. Women attempt suicide three times more often than men. (See AMA stats)
The CDC says that,
historically, blacks have had a lower suicide rate than whites. But in
recent years, the CDC says the suicide rate especially among black
youth has been rising.
The NIMH says there are between 8 and 25 attempts for every completed suicide (note I do not say “successful suicide.”)
The CDC says suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in America.
More than four times as many men die from suicide as women.
by firearm is the most common method for both men and women, accounting
for 57 percent of all suicides in 2000. White men accounted for 73
percent of all suicides and 80 percent of all firearm suicides.
- Each year about one million people commit suicide worldwide.
year some 30,000 Americans end their lives by suicide, and
approximately 650,000 people receive emergency treatment after
- Every 41 seconds someone in the
U.S. attempts suicide; every 16.7 minutes, someone completes suicide;
and every day more than 85 people die by suicide.
- Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third leading cause of death among American youths.
- Over the last 100 years, suicide in the U.S. has out-numbered homicide by at least 3 to 2.
- Almost 4 times as many Americans died by suicide during the Vietnam War era as died in the course of military action.
Whites kill themselves at a much higher rate than blacks.
males were almost six times as likely to die by suicide as Hispanic
females, representing 85 percent of the 8,744 Hispanic suicides between
1997 and 2001. Hispanic youth are the fastest growing segment of the
U.S. population and account for one fourth of all Hispanic suicide
Suicide is usually a
complicated response to overwhelming problems as opposed to a simple, unplanned
reaction to one life challenge. In others words, it is not as simple as
saying “he was unhappy with last week’s game” or some such explanation.
investigation generally reveals underlying problems unrecognized even
by close friends and family members. Most victims do however give
warning signs of their risk for suicide (see symptoms list below).
Some informants are inclined to suggest that a particular individual,
for instance a family member or a health service provider, in some way
played a role in the victim’s suicide. Thorough investigation almost
always finds multiple causes for suicide and fails to corroborate a
simple attribution of responsibility.
Dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of
grieving relatives, teachers or classmates or community expressions of
grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of
getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.
Using adolescents on TV or in print media to tell the stories of their
suicide attempts may be harmful to the adolescents themselves or may
encourage other vulnerable young people to seek attention in this way.
Be Careful With the Language you use in Reporting Suicide
to a “rise” in suicide rates is usually more accurate than calling such
a rise an “epidemic,” which implies a more dramatic and sudden increase
than what we generally find in suicide rates.
has shown that the use in headlines of the word suicide or referring to
the cause of death as self-inflicted increases the likelihood of
Recommendations for language:
Whenever possible, it is preferable to avoid referring to suicide in
the headline. Unless the suicide death took place in public, the cause
of death should be reported in the body of the story and not in the
• In deaths that will be covered nationally,
such as of celebrities, or those apt to be covered locally, such as
persons living in small towns, consider phrasing for headlines such as:
“Marilyn Monroe dead at 36,” or “John Smith dead at 48.” Consideration
of how they died could be reported in the body of the article.
In the body of the story, it is preferable to describe the deceased as
“having died by suicide,” rather than as “a suicide,” or having
“committed suicide.” The latter two expressions reduce the person to
the mode of death, or connote criminal or sinful behavior.
Contrasting “suicide deaths” with “non-fatal attempts” is preferable to
using terms such as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or “failed.”
Special Situations/Celebrity Cases
deaths by suicide are more likely than non-celebrity deaths to produce
imitation. (or copy cat deaths.) Although suicides by celebrities
will receive prominent coverage, it is important not to let the glamour
of the individual obscure any mental health problems or use of drugs.
covering murder-suicides be aware that the tragedy of the homicide can
mask the suicidal aspect of the act. Feelings of depression and
hopelessness present before the homicide and suicide are often the
impetus for both.
pacts are mutual arrangements between two people who kill themselves at
the same time, and are rare. They are not simply the act of loving
individuals who do not wish to be separated. Research shows that most
pacts involve an individual who is coercive and another who is
Stories to Consider Covering
• Trends in suicide rates
• Recent treatment advances
• Individual stories of how treatment was life-saving
• Stories of people who overcame despair without attempting suicide
• Myths about suicide
• Warning signs of suicide
p style=”margin-left: 40px”>• Actions that individuals can take to prevent suicide by others
The American Association of Suicidology passes along these tips:
Here is an easy mnemonic to remember these warning signs:
IS PATH WARM?
S Substance Abuse
M Mood Changes
Here are some ways to be helpful to someone who is threatening suicide:
- Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
- Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or
whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
- Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
- Don’t dare him or her to do it.
- Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
- Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
- Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
- Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
- Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
people at some time in their lives think about completing suicide. Most
decide to live because they eventually come to realize that the crisis
is temporary and death is permanent. On the other hand, people having a
crisis sometimes perceive their dilemma as inescapable and feel an
utter loss of control. These are some of the feelings and thoughts they
- Can’t stop the pain
- Can’t think clearly
- Can’t make decisions
- Can’t see any way out
- Can’t sleep, eat or work
- Can’t get out of depression
- Can’t make the sadness go away
- Can’t see a future without pain
- Can’t see themselves as worthwhile
- Can’t get someone’s attention
- Can’t seem to get control
If someone you know exhibits these symptoms, offer help!
- A community mental health agency
- A private therapist or counselor
- A school counselor or psychologist
- A family physician
- A suicide prevention or crisis center
Finally, here’s a dated but still very useful resource from Poynter Online: Reporting on Suicide, by Cindi E. Deutschman-Ruiz.