There is nothing more devastating than suicide, but it can also fascinate some people. Each September, we recognize Suicide Awareness Month. Following the suicide of a celebrity or well-known person, there is typically a lot of media coverage, speculation, and gossip. Although it is understandable that suicide can be a topic that captures our attention, research has shown that excessive media coverage of suicide can sometimes lead vulnerable people to have increased thoughts of suicide. This phenomenon is known as suicide contagion.
Suicide contagion extends beyond the death of a celebrity – it has been studied after the suicide of someone in the community, the fictional representation of suicide, or the suicide of someone the person knows in real life. Because of the importance that media coverage plays in our society, it is crucial that the media portray suicide in a responsible way. This includes providing information on help that is available to those considering suicide or self-harm.
When the media portrays suicide irresponsibly, it can have damaging effects on others. Mainstream media has been known to sensationalize or romanticize suicide, triggering those who are thinking about self-harm or suicide. Many suicide prevention organizations have created guidelines for the media on how to talk about self-harm and suicide in a responsible way.
Researchers believe that overlapping circumstances often lead to a sudden increase in suicide after a death is covered by the media. These circumstances include mental illness, trauma, and economic circumstances. Studies have shown that when suicides increase after the media reports on a high-profile death, if proper reporting methods are not followed then suicide rates increase even further.
Recommendations and guidelines for the media emphasize avoiding sharing details about the method of death, if a note was left behind, or other personal information. Reporters are also encouraged to avoid language the criminalizes suicde, such as saying that the individual ‘committed suicide’. Phrases like ‘suicide epidemic’ should also be avoided as they may overexaggerate the actual prevalence of suicide, leaving vulnerable people to believe that suicide is common and normal.
Those most vulnerable to suicide contagion are usually those under the age of 25 and psychiatric inpatients, military veterans, prison inmates, and minority groups. Following a community suicide, experts recommend that debriefing sessions and additional outreach for those at risk to fight suicide contagion. Grief counseling, information on where a person can seek help, and group or individual counseling should all be considered as part of the debriefing process.
In the U.S., to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, call 1-800-273-8255. If you are unable to make a phone call, you can also text “HOME” to 741741 to connect with the Crisis Text Line. Those outside the U.S. can search for local resources on the Suicide Hotlines and Prevention Resources page.