Suicide is a public health issue. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy, however, the way media covers suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion or positively by encouraging those affected to seek help.
Suicide contagion or “copycat suicide” occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide. One could argue, and with proof too, that the Nigerian media has not particularly been helpful in properly reporting suicide in a way that does not expose people who are considering to commit suicide to the “copycat" effect and that is why it was necessary to put together this resource.
The importance of covering suicide in a responsible way
More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage. Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic / graphic headlines or images, and repeated / extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misconceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.
What leads to suicide?
There’s no single cause for suicide. Suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition. Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it is often undiagnosed or untreated. Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide. Yet it’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health conditions lead fulfilling lives.
Suicide warning signs
It is important that we look out for behavioral changes, especially those related to a painful event, loss or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
Talk (If a person talks about):
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Experiencing unbearable pain
- Having no reason to live
- Killing themselves
Behavior (Specific things to look out for include):
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means
- Acting recklessly
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
Mood (People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods):
- Loss of interest
Suicide risk factors
Risk factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life.
- Mental health conditions
- Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder
- Borderline or antisocial personality disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Psychotic disorders, or psychotic symptoms in the context of any disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse disorders
- Serious or chronic health condition and/or pain
- Stressful life events which may include a death, divorce, or job loss
- Prolonged stress factors which may include harassment, bullying, relationship problems, and unemployment
- Access to lethal means including poisonous substances (sniper) and drugs
- Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide attempts
What you can do
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any poisonous substances, alcohol, firearm, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the MANI DISTRESS/SUICIDE LIFELINES: 08060101157, 08136770508, 08093565520
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Avoid misinformation and offer hope
Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses, that may not have been recognized or treated. However, these illnesses are treatable.
- Refer to research findings that mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90% of people who have died by suicide.
- Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide.
- Consider quoting a suicide prevention expert on causes and treatments. Avoid putting expert opinions in a sensationalistic context.
- Use your story to inform readers about the causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in rates and recent treatment advances.
- Add statement(s) about the many treatment options available, stories of those who overcame a suicidal crisis and resources for help.
- Include up-to-date local/national resources where readers/viewers can find treatment, information and advice that promotes seeking help.
When reporting on suicides
Instead of this:
- Big or sensationalistic headlines, or prominent placement (e.g. “Dede Achonwa Used Sniper to Commit Suicide”).
- Including photos / videos of the location or method of death, grieving family, friends, memorials or funerals.
- Describing recent suicides as an “epidemic”, “skyrocketing”, or other strong terms.
- Describing a suicide as inexplicable or “without warning.”
- “Dede Achonwa left a suicide note saying…”.
- Investigating and reporting on suicide similar to reporting on crimes.
- Quoting / interviewing police or first responders about the causes of suicide.
- Referring to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.”
- Inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence (e.g., “Dede Achonwa Dead at 27”).
- Use school/work or family photo; include hotline logo or local crisis phone numbers.
- Carefully investigate the most recent data (if available) and use non-sensational words like “rise” or “higher.”
- Most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs. Include the “Warning Signs” and “What to Do”, both of which are in this resource, in your article if possible.
- “A note from the deceased was found and is being reviewed by concerned authorities.”
- Report on suicide as a public health issue.
- Seek advice from suicide prevention experts.
- Describe as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself.”
** Dede Achonwa is a made-up name and is not in any way related to anyone that might bear the same name.
Suggestions for online media, bloggers and journalists
- Bloggers, journalists, popular social media pages and public commentators can help reduce risk of contagion with posts or links to treatment services, warning signs and suicide hotlines.
- Include stories of hope and recovery, information on how to overcome suicidal thinking and increase coping skills.
- The potential for online reports, photos / videos and stories to go viral makes it vital that online coverage of suicide follows safety recommendations.
- Social networking sites often become memorials to the deceased and should be monitored for hurtful comments (and their removal) and for statements that others are considering suicide (and appropriately refer them to get help).
Compiled by Dr Victor Ugo (@veeksterzz) for Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative.