Many people live with constant suicidal thoughts and feelings. Most of the public conversation and education about suicide now happens in the media, including online media. This shapes how we understand and respond to our own suicidal experiences. It influences how society thinks about suicide and how communities understand those who are suicidal. Such media conversations impact the public’s risk in both helpful and harmful ways, and there are many questions remaining about how the media can best communicate with suicide prevention in mind. The public, media professionals, and especially those with lived experience, need high quality research to untangle the helpful and harmful aspects of different stories about suicide. We need to better understand how these research findings apply to different types of media and different audiences. Research like this is critically important because lives, like mine, are at stake.
It is in this context that we sought to summarise the evidence regarding the association between media reporting of suicide and suicides in the general population. The meta-analysis presented here in The BMJ confirms an association that has frequently been observed: that reporting about deaths by suicide, especially deaths of celebrities, is associated with subsequent short-term increases in suicide rates. The research also captures, for the first time, major differences between studies which goes some way to explaining why the deaths of some celebrities are associated with large increases in suicide rates while others are not. Media coverage of suicide varies widely and we are now starting to get an understanding of those types of media portrayals that are harmful (for example, portrayals featuring details on suicide methods, romantic portrayals of suicide) and those that might be beneficial. Emerging evidence also suggests that stories of recovery may be especially helpful for people with lived experience or people at risk of suicide.
While much remains unknown about media reporting and suicide, one thing is clear. Reporting about suicide is hard. We have a great deal of respect for those media professionals who dedicate time and effort to prevent imitation effects and to reduce the stigma of suicide when writing stories on suicide. Many media professionals often put much more time and effort into reporting on suicide and suicide prevention than is typically done for other types of news. But some have remained unconvinced about the association between media reporting and suicide and question if they should use media guidelines when reporting on suicide. Highly sensational stories about suicide are still the norm in some parts of the world, with the reporting of Robin Williams’ death being an example of where guidelines were not followed in the US and where this information was then transmitted to the rest of the world. Notably, following his death, short-term increases in suicide rates were observed in the US, Canada and Australia. As the most accessible means to address this public health problem, the challenge now is to ensure media guidelines are fully implemented on regional, national, and international levels. Considering these points, it becomes clear that responsible communication on suicide in the media is indeed essential if we want to be serious about tackling the stigma and ultimately help more individuals to seek help and prevent suicide.
Thomas Niederkrotenthaler is an associate professor / research group leader at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. He is an internationally recognized expert in the area of suicide and the media.
Matthew Spittal is an Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is a biostatistician by training and studies the epidemiology of suicide and self-harm.
Kevin Hines is a filmmaker, speaker and author with lived experience of suicidal thoughts. He has been an active contributor to significant legislative efforts in the United States, surrounding suicide prevention for the past 20 years.
Margaret Hines is the founder of a mental wellness multimedia production company and a board member of the American Association of Suicidology.
Competing interests: See linked research paper.