We Need To Talk About Suicide Responsibly

On World Suicide Prevention Day, we signed a letter along with 130 signatories calling the media to lead the way in changing how we talk about suicide.

In the last few years, there's been an increase in coverage of mental health and illness in the media, and a great deal of progress in the way we talk about it. The language, images and words used in the press, on TV, radio and social media can have a huge impact in tackling the stigma and breaking stereotypes. That’s why we want to ensure the media lead the way in ensuring we talk about suicide responsibly.

We signed the following letter, along with over a hundred other public figures, broadcasters, authors, journalists and politicians: 

Dear Editor,

With World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September, we are writing to request that you make a pledge to portray suicide in ways which reflect our modern understanding of this phenomenon that is responsible annually for the deaths of 6,000 people in the UK, and 800,000 worldwide.

The language and images we see and hear in the media naturally shape our understanding and view of the world. This is why journalism will always be so important – we are influenced by the kinds of stories you choose to cover, the language you use in those stories, and the images that are chosen to illustrate them. This places an enormous burden of responsibility on editors, reporters, photographers, sub-editors, producers, presenters and all of the other people engaged in bringing us news, editorial and comment.

In recent years we have seen some real advances in the way that most of the media treats sensitive issues such as race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, and religion. We have also witnessed advances in the ways that mental health issues and suicide are dealt with, with journalists displaying greater understanding, knowledge and sensitivity. You deserve praise for raising the profile of mental health and tackling the stigma that surrounds it. Many of us have seen first-hand what a positive difference this coverage makes to people’s lives.

The evidenced risks associated with reporting of suicide, however, remain a real cause for concern. Despite some excellent media guidelines produced by Samaritans and Mind, journalists often still revert to outdated language and stereotypes when reporting suicide.

There is a difficult balance between reporting known facts and introducing elements of the story into the public domain which may encourage others to emulate what they have read, as is described in the Werther effect - so called because of the spate of imitational suicides that were said to have taken place after the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Research carried out across the world over the last five decades shows that when specific methods of suicide are reported – details of types and amounts of pills, for example – it can lead to vulnerable people copying them.

Young people in particular are more influenced by what they see and hear in the media than other age groups and are more susceptible to what is often referred to as suicide contagion.

We should not describe a suicide as ‘easy’, ‘painless’, ‘quick’ or ‘effective’, and we should remember to look at the long-term consequences of suicide attempts, not forgetting the significant life-long pain for those left behind when someone does take their own life.

It is also important to bear in mind that reports of celebrity deaths carry greater risk of encouraging others to take their own lives, due to the increased likelihood of over-identification by vulnerable people. A recent study, which examined news reports covering the suicide of US actor Robin Williams, identified a 10% increase in people taking their own lives in the months following his death. This emphasises the responsibility that we all have when it comes to talking about suicide.

We often read speculation about the cause of suicide, linking a death to a previous event such as the loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship or bullying. It is impossible to say with any certainty why someone takes their own life. As Samaritans state: ‘there is no simple explanation for why someone chooses to die by suicide, and it is rarely due to one particular factor.’ We call on journalists to refrain from speculation about causes, and to avoid linking it with previous life events. Suicide is often the culmination of a complex set of factors.

We urge you to consider the increased risk to those affected by suicide, including bereaved families and friends. Please avoid sensationalist headlines, prominent or repeated photos of the deceased - particularly in cases of a young person’s death or a suicide cluster, or stereotypical quotes from acquaintances or neighbours about the state of mind of the deceased leading up to their death.

We still read that a person has ‘committed suicide’, suggesting suicide is either a sin or a crime, or both. It has not been a crime in the UK since 1961. This form of words can imply that to take one’s own life is a selfish, cowardly, criminal or irreligious act, rather than the manifestation of extreme mental distress and unbearable pain. It also adds to the stigma and feelings of shame that prevent people from reaching out for help. We call on all sections of the media to replace the phrase ‘commit suicide’ with alternatives, such as ‘died by suicide’, and to embed this change into their style guides. We too promise to use this language when talking about the subject.

We would strongly encourage you to include the contact details for suicide prevention organisations in any reports or articles where suicide is a significant element of the story. Thank you to those of you who already do this.

There is a huge job to be done to educate the public: to tackle taboos; to break down stereotypes; to report and comment on suicide in a responsible manner. We hope that you will play your part. We are not trying to censor media reporting – rather we are striving to encourage safer reporting. Samaritans and Mind offer free advice sessions to media outlets, covering safe and informative reporting of suicide and mental health.

Suicide is preventable; we can dramatically reduce the number of people who take their own lives. There is a body of research known as the ‘Papageno effect’ which shows that responsible stories, such as hopeful journeys of recovery, can help to highlight the importance of seeking help and can support efforts to reduce suicide. The language we all use to describe suicide can help or hinder this goal.

We trust that you will join us in helping to reduce suicide by setting high standards for your media outlet: informing without sensationalising, reporting without editorialising, and adding to our greater understanding rather than contributing further to the miasma of myth.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Thomas, CEO YoungMinds

Click here for the full list of signatories

If you think you might be struggling with suicidal feelings, please visit our Find Help page, with a list of helplines and services available. 

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