Reporting on suicide? Consider these common problems and their solutions

March 26, 2019

Another suicide involving a person closely connected with mass school killings is focusing our attention on a growing contagion.  The father of young girl killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead. Police say Jeremy Richman took his own life.

In the last week, two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, also died by suicide.  

Journalists are right to be cautious about how they cover these deaths but we should not be afraid to confront suicide as an important health and safety issue.  

Here are some things to consider while reporting on suicide:

Problem one:

The contagion effect can be real. We do not know whether these three recent suicides are related or to what extent the decision to end their lives was directly connected to the school shootings or other complications in their lives. Suicide is usually associated with a complex mix of ingredients that the person finds to be too overwhelming to confront.

Response: Don’t over-simplify why somebody took his or her own life. It is not as simple as “He was sad,” “She missed her friend,” or “He felt guilty.”  Don’t assume you know why somebody made the decision he/she made.

Suicide clusters seem to be most common among people under age 25, although there is little reliable data to be sure. Psychology Today reported, “A 1987 study of youth suicide by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 to 5 percent of all youth suicides occur in clusters.”

Problem two:

Glamorizing suicide makes it appear to be a viable option for somebody who wants fame or attention. When journalists do stories showing an outpouring of emotion, shock and love for the dead, it may plant the seed in a vulnerable person to grab their moment in the spotlight, too. After recent celebrity deaths involving Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, suicide hotline calls jumped 25 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal.  Robin Williams’ death also may be linked to a rise in suicides.

The Chicago Tribune reported this copycat effect has been known for centuries. “The phenomenon of ‘suicide contagion’ or ‘copycat’ suicides is not new. Scientists often refer to it as the ‘Werther effect,’ referring to the 1774 novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ by German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After publication of the book, whose lovelorn protagonist takes his own life, there occurred an extraordinary outbreak of similar suicides all over Europe. This was especially true of young men about the same age as Werther, and whose bodies were often found dressed in the same clothes the fictional Werther was wearing at the time of his death.”

Response: Help your readers/viewers/listeners understand that suicide is a painful, victimizing action. The American Association of Suicideology recommends that journalists:

  • Use objective, non-sensationalistic language to describe the suicide death.
  • Exclude details about method, location, notes or photos from the scene.
  • Focus on life of the person rather than the death and method.

You can download the Association’s toolkit for covering suicides here.

Problem three:

Correlation and causation are not the same. Journalists may be tempted to suggest that it is obvious why somebody chose suicide, but we generally do not know the complexities of a person’s decision.

Response: Covering suicide requires journalists to seek context. This is not a time to value brevity and promotion over deeper understanding that requires nuance. Carve out the time and resources to cover this story, or leave it to those who can or will.  

Experts have found that the solutions may be most effective when the key means that are being used in suicides are removed.  In Sri Lanka, for example, a spate of suicides involving pesticides was stemmed when the government made the most toxic chemicals more difficult to obtain. Suicides dropped by half in 10 years.   

Another study found a possible association between altitude and suicide.

A New Zealand study found a strong correlation between unemployment and suicide.

The American Association of Suicideology says,A study found that when comparing heterosexual males and females with their gay and lesbian counterparts, they found that the gay men were six times more likely than the heterosexual males to attempt suicide and the lesbians were two times more likely than heterosexual females to attempt suicide.” The group also reports, “Researchers have found that self-dislike and self-criticism are also predictors in suicide ideation. Eighty percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth report isolation problems. These feelings may contribute to suicide ideation because the negative feelings may occur more frequently. To date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.”

Other studies show that suicides are lowest in the most populated areas and highest in the most rural areas.  The reasons may have to do with availability of health care or a feeling of isolation that does not exist in cities.

Meanwhile, researchers also say, “Alcoholism has been associated with high suicide rates in European countries, and impulsiveness and political violence are associated with suicide in southeast Asian countries.”

Suicide rates also vary around the globe. Some of the highest rates are in Eastern Europe; the lowest rates are in the Caribbean.  Of course, there may be big gaps in how countries report or even attempt to confirm suicide cases.

Problem four:

We falsely assume that suicide is a decision that comes after some contemplation. But suicide is an irrational act. In fact, mental illness is at the core of suicide. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says, “90 percent of children and adolescents who die by suicide live with a mental health condition.”

Suicide is often an action that a person chooses when he or she enters what experts call, “a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability.”  

Response: Explore stories about how/whether health insurance covers mental health. Report stories about the need for more mental health, particularly in rural America. The CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System currently includes only 40 states with big states like Florida and Texas missing. By contrast, every fatal car crash is reported to a national database within a month. We know a lot more about the cause of car crashes than we know about suicides. Experts say like car crash death prevention, the more reliable data we have about suicides, the more reliably we can make changes that will reduce suicide.

Awareness and public education is a key to reducing America’s suicide rate. Suicides are seldom a surprise. Most people who take their own lives have signaled their vulnerability many times. But once they begin an emotional spiral, things can go bad fast. A Houston study that interviewed 13- to 34-year-olds who attempted suicide asked how much time had passed between when they decided to take their own lives and when the made the attempt. The study said, “A startling 24 percent said less than five minutes; 48 percent said less than 20 minutes; 70 percent said less than one hour; and 86 percent said less than eight hours.”

Problem five

When high-profile suicides involve guns, there is an inevitable call for gun control or other one-and-done solutions. But there is no single reason for suicides and no single solution either.

Many studies have shown that homes that have guns have a higher rate of completed suicides than those without guns.  A Harvard study said, “Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S.; in 2010, 38,364 people killed themselves. In more than half of these cases, they used firearms.  Indeed, more people in this country kill themselves with guns than with all other intentional means combined, including hanging, poisoning or overdose, jumping, or cutting. Though guns are not the most common method by which people attempt suicide, they are the most lethal. About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death.”

Here is the complication: The same study found that people in gun-owning homes were not more suicidal. But the presence of a gun makes it more likely that they will die in the event that do they do become suicidal.

Response: Avoid offering simple solutions to complex problems.

The impulsive response to a suicide death is to call for better mental health care or fewer guns or more counselors.  To make a real difference, all of those solutions are needed, and there is more because suicide has many contributing factors.

Consider looking at stories about how responsible gun owners and gun sellers take extra precautions including trigger locks.  The Harvard study reported how some gun shops passed around materials to educate and prevent suicide.  (There are Gun Shop projects in 11 states now.) In 2009, three people (they didn’t know each other) each purchased guns from the same New Hampshire gun shop and took their own lives within a one-week period.  A movement began there to warn retailers and customers about the symptom of suicidal thoughts. A decade later nearly half of New Hampshire gun shops in that state now display warnings about suicide.

Reuters reported another big gap in suicide prevention:

“Despite national recommendations in place since 2012, researchers found that as of 2017, only 10 states — California, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia — required mental and behavioral healthcare professionals to complete training in how to spot someone at risk for suicide and take preventive action.”

“Only three of these states — Nevada, Washington and West Virginia — include other types of healthcare professionals like nurses and physicians in mandated training. In Indiana, only emergency medical providers are required to have the training.”

Problem six

Journalists avoid covering suicides except in celebrity or high-profile deaths. Partly it is out of tradition or the fear of sparking copycat incidents.  

Response: Cover suicide as a public health issue. The CDC says, “Suicide is a large and growing public health problem. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It was responsible for nearly 45,000 deaths in 2016, with approximately one death every 12 minutes. Many more people think about or attempt suicide and survive. In 2016, 9.8 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 2.8 million made a plan, and 1.3 million attempted suicide.”

Suicide involving young people gets a lot of attention, but the CDC says suicide “is the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years of age, the fourth leading cause among people 35 to 54 years of age, and the eighth leading cause among people 55 to 64 years of age.”

There is no one image that you can capture of a potential suicide victim. It’s true that the highest suicide rates occur among non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic White populations. And the CDC says, “Other Americans disproportionately impacted by suicide include veterans and other military personnel and workers in certain occupational groups. Sexual minority youth bear a large burden as well, and experience increased suicidal ideation and behavior compared to their non-sexual minority peers.”

Remember that suicide is preventable. Don’t portray suicidal thoughts as a weakness and that with treatment, the person can find path out of their suicidal thoughts. And journalists should drop the trope that after a tragedy or trauma “that a community or a person will never be the same again,” or they will be “forever changed.”  That is like sentencing a person to a life of anguish, when, with treatment, people who have suffered trauma can learn to cope with their experiences.