When a public suicide happens, and those who report on it or discuss it online aren’t careful with their messaging, it can actually cause what’s called “suicide contagion.” Contagion is a phenomenon in which additional suicides happen after the coverage of a suicide in the media. Seeing suicide sensationalized or even glamorized can make those who are already having suicidal thoughts feel like suicide is inevitable, common, or even the right escape from their pain. There are ways to talk about suicide openly, while being cautious not to risk suicide contagion.
Here are some tips on how to write about and discuss suicide.
- Use the phrase “died by suicide.” This may seem awkward to get in the habit of using when you’re used to hearing other terms. But, it avoids using words like “committed,” which some people feel blames the victim, or “succeeded,” which suggests that an uncompleted suicide is somehow a failure.
- If you’re going to use an image, use a portrait of the person before they died rather than loved ones who are grieving, or the scene of their death.
- Emphasize that suicide is preventable, and include information on warning signs and how to talk to someone in your life who may be at risk.
- Perhaps most importantly, include resources. This would include a number for a suicide hotline and maybe even local resources where someone could go to get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours at 800-273-8255.
- Don’t sensationalize. This goes for both how the person died as well as the statistics on suicide. It’s important to discuss the scope of the issue, but using words like “skyrocketing” to describe suicide rates can be sensationalistic. Using headlines that focus on the fact that someone died, rather than how that person died, is also helpful in not sensationalizing the suicide.
- In fact, don’t discuss the method of suicide in the body of the article or blog post either.
- Don’t discuss the contents of a note, if left by the person who died by suicide, as it can seem to justify suicide or legitimize those thoughts leading up to it.
- Discuss suicide as a public health concern, not a crime. You can do this by talking to suicide prevention experts rather than first responders, and being careful about the language you use.
- Don’t focus on one factor in the person’s life that “drove” them to suicide. Most often, suicide is the result of manageable mental health disorders that aren’t treated.
While it's important to start a conversation about suicide and mental health, it's even more important to make sure you're having the right conversation. Bringing awareness to the topic is key to fighting the stigma of mental health disorders and suicide. Following these tips can help make sure the effort you're putting into raising awareness will make a positive difference.