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Suicide reporting guidelines and the media

Newspapers rolled up, side by side.

By now, most everyone has heard of the death of actor, Robin Williams at age 63. He died by suicide. He died Monday evening, after a long battle with severe depression and difficulties with addictions. 

By midday Tuesday (August 12, 2014), several media outlets had released the method in which he killed himself, providing various stark descriptions. I am someone with two diagnosed mental health issues, and additionally a student who is studying grief and bereavement. With that in mind, I know there are guidelines set forth to be used by the media when speaking about suicide. Since Robin Williams’ death, those have not been followed. 

Here are some of the guidelines that are put forth by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention for news stories about suicide, to minimize others from imitating or romanticizing the tragedy:

  • Avoid or minimize reporting details of the method.
  • Avoid or minimize oversimplifying reasons for suicide.

It is also suggested that in print based media, imitative impact can be reduced by:

  • Printing the story on an inner page of the paper vs. front page, or printing below the fold.
  • Not using the word suicide in the title. 

The American Association for Suicidology also put forth recommendations for reporting on suicide, noting that:

  • the way a suicide is reported can influence others in attempting suicide. 
  • the media has the opportunity to correct myths and misconceptions about suicide.
  • reports should avoid information on how someone completed suicide (i.e. method).
  • warning signs of suicide, hotlines and local resources should be included for individuals who have suicidal ideations or who need help coping with a loved one’s suicide .

The World Health Organization suggests:

  • that the reporting of celebrity suicides should be done in a delicate manner (people look up to celebrities and want to imitate their behaviour, this is especially true of those who are already considering suicide). 
  • including information on where to seek help, to accompany such a story.

Lastly when interviewing people for the story, it is best to interview suicide prevention experts rather than police, firefighters or emergency medical services. They can provide information focusing on prevention but also help the individuals who are grieving. 

We know that all of the media attention recently on suicide can be triggering so please if you need help or are feeling down, talk to someone you trust. For information on how to reach out for help, go to the Help section.