Suicide Contagion and Responsible Reporting

“Contagious” brings to mind the common cold, influenza, and, recently, the Ebola virus. But suicide?

Taking the death of Robin Williams as its jumping-off point, an article in today’s New York Times, The Science Behind Suicide Contagion, by Margot Sanger-Katz, describes how suicide can spread like a communicable disease, particularly due to sensationalist news stories. Reporting about suicide thus becomes a matter for responsible health communication and journalistic ethics.

Sanger-Katz points out that high-profile suicides, such as those of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain, often lead to a temporary spike in suicide rates.

“Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people,” writes Sanger-Katz.

This link has led to a set of guidelines for news media coverage of suicide deaths published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For example, the recommendations advise reporters to “inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence.” Rather than the headline “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide,” write “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27.”

As Sanger-Katz points out, such advice can seem unrealistic. Some details are so much a part of a story that leaving them out would be irresponsible. That Robin Williams killed himself IS the story.

But journalists will benefit from studying the guidelines, among which is a recommendation to include, in any story about suicide, information about suicide hotlines as well as other resources.

What the Times story brought home for me is how journalism can be implicated in health communication, unintentionally or otherwise.

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