Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people in the United States. Though it’s essential to spread awareness about this issue, and the related mental health challenges that teens and young adults are facing today, media coverage can potentially do more harm than good.
For example, coverage often sensationalizes the act of suicide. Media outlets tend to cover high-profile cases, such as celebrity deaths by suicide, and this publicity can contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion,” or what is commonly called “copycat suicide.” This is when a heavily promoted death by suicide causes additional suicides or suicide attempts. If details about the suicide are published in the media, individuals might use that information to replicate the steps. Young people with existing mental health challenges are especially at risk of succumbing to celebrity and media influence. Conversely, media coverage can normalize the act of suicide, making it seem like a rational act for someone in a tragic situation to choose.
The Jed Foundation (JED) believes that reporting on suicide responsibly can help prevent additional attempts. Safe reporting can also encourage people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek help. Responsible coverage begins with establishing safe messaging guidelines and understanding sensitive language choices.
For example, journalists should:
- Avoid the phrase “committed suicide.” This language is outdated and is a reference to suicide as a criminal act. Instead, use factual language about the cause of death. For example, “died by suicide.”
- Avoid using language that treats suicide as a “success.” This language suggests that suicide is something to be achieved. Conversely, it can contribute to the idea that not acting on suicidal ideations—or surviving a suicide attempt—is a “failure.” Instead, use neutral language. Use phrases such as “suicide attempt survivor.”
- Refrain from sharing sensitive details about the person’s life or about their method of suicide. Sharing too many personal details may cause others to over-identify with that person. Disclosing details about their method of suicide may cause someone struggling with suicidal thoughts to attempt suicide using similar methods. Instead, share general information. For example, “Jane Doe, student, dies by suicide,” instead of “Troubled NYU freshman dies of suicide by overdose.”
- Eliminate language that stigmatizes mental illness or substance misuse. If the person had a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, do not use terms such as “disturbed,” “crazy,” or “addict.” Avoid using phrases such as “John was schizophrenic” or “Jane was an alcoholic,” as this type of language defines a person by their condition. Instead, focus on symptoms and warning signs. Focusing on symptoms can help people notice warning signs in themselves or others.
Find a complete guide to safe reporting on suicide here. There are also tools available to help ensure media compliance with these approved guidelines.
Reporters should be sure to emphasize that suicide is preventable. Media outlets can play an important role in underscoring this point, along with the fact that treatment for suicidal thoughts and any potential correlating mental health conditions is available. When reporting on suicide, it can be useful to note that mental health issues are not a weakness or a personal failing—and neither is asking for help.
If possible, include stories of survival. Showing that a struggling person sought help and learned healthy coping strategies can offer a positive example for a reader who is having a difficult time.
Media outlets should use their publishing platforms to provide resources about suicide prevention and mental health treatment, including the numbers for suicide hotlines. These should be prominently displayed on all articles related to mental health and suicide.
The responsibilities of safely and sensitively reporting on suicide do not end once a story is published. In digital media, stories can continue to circulate long after their publication date. One study found that exposure to content about self-harm and suicidal ideation online, especially on highly visual social media platforms like Instagram, led to increase in imitative behavior. Although only 20% of those surveyed sought out the content intentionally, nearly 60% of those exposed to the imagery imagined what it would feel like to do the same thing, and over 32% stated that they had tried a self-harming behavior after seeing it on Instagram. Imitative outcomes tended to occur up to a month after being exposed to the content. With this in mind, it is important to consider how content relating to suicide will be shared with the public, especially on social media.
Social media pages can bring together those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, and they can act as a support network for people who are struggling. At the same time, memorializing those who have lost their lives to suicide can send the wrong message to a young person who is struggling and may romanticize the level of support that they see on such pages. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has compiled safety processes for top social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Discord.
Media outlets should consider closing comment sections on stories about suicide. Because comments are not subject to the same standards as the original news story, a comments section can potentially deviate from safe messaging guidelines. Comments might include graphic details, speculation, or stigmatizing comments about mental health. Even seemingly positive comments, such as “he has gone to a better place,” can be problematic for people struggling with suicidal thoughts.
If an outlet does decide to open the comments on a story about suicide, it is important to develop, publicize, and enforce policies for safe commenting. Note that a journalist calling attention to the comment section, or any comments in particular, may seem to validate their claims. Also be aware of how citing responses from the public—for example, “there was an outpouring of support”—can glamorize the topic. Monitor comments sections and message boards for harmful or concerning messages, and ensure that resources and hotlines are visible to all commenters.
The media has an important role to play in shaping the narrative around suicide as a public health concern. JED recommends getting an expert opinion on how to handle reporting on suicide and related mental health topics, such as substance misuse. If you are reporting on suicide and would like to confer with one of our mental health experts, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.