Irresponsible suicide reporting and rate of incidence

Suicide prevention involves cooperation and collaboration between mental health professionals, parents, school and college teachers, policy makers, the police and of course the media.

While we examine the various social reasons why suicide is becoming an increasing problem in society, let us also examine what the media can do to help? The media has been known to have an important role because of a phenomenon called the `Werther effect’ or suicide by imitation.

Werther was the tragic hero of a 1774 Goethe novel—Die Leiden des jungen Werthers—The Sorrows of Young Werther. The hero eventually ends his life because of a girl. Soon after the novel’s publication, many young men imitated this suicide following similar life situations and the book had to be banned! Subsequently suicides that happen due to social learning and imitation have been attributed to the Werther effect. Research from across the world has shown that suicides may happen due to social learning and imitation.

The World Health Organisation has published clear guidelines on responsible reporting of suicides by the media. Across the country every year there are workshops and symposia held on the topic but somehow, most times, at least in India the media appears to prefer sensationalism to sensitivity and support.

Research evidence indicates that inappropriate media reporting of suicide is linked to increased rates of actual suicide. What constitutes inappropriate reporting? Extensive coverage of suicides, prominent items placed on the first few pages of newspapers and articles in which the method of suicide is explicitly detailed should be avoided.

The more detailed the description, the higher the chances that vulnerable people, particularly the youth and adolescents are likely to identify with the person. A detailed description of the method, contents of the suicide note and relating life problems to suicide should never be done in suicide reports.

Complex circumstances

Almost always a suicidal attempt happens due to complex circumstances. Attributing it to a common life event is not just extremely simplistic, it is also very risky. While the act may follow a particular incident, there are usually several causes which interact with each other leading to it including preexisting but unrecognised mental health problems. The risk lies in over simplifying the reasons and hence making vulnerable individuals to identify with the circumstances and enhancing chances of copycat suicides. People may also see suicide as a glamorous ending — with youth getting a lot of attention and sympathy.

Reporting two or more suicides in a day, also known as high suicide density reporting should also be avoided. Repeated similarities among reported attempts, especially when suicide is related to a particular demographic- such as age, occupation or life circumstances also have the risk of triggering similar thoughts in people who are at risk.
The media must understand that there are many vulnerable people out there who are reading their newspaper and viewing their TV channels. Many people are grappling with life’s’ problems and looking for solutions. It is these people who are known to be most affected by media reports.

In particular, research has found that media coverage may encourage suicidal behavior in vulnerable children, and that the impact of suicide stories on subsequent completed suicides is greatest for adolescents. Reporting guidelines have been developed for suicides among young people in India by SNEHA an NGO in Chennai and the document even questions whether attempts by children and adolescents need to be reported at all. Interestingly most workshops on suicide that are organised for the media are attended by health reporters while the actual reporting is done by the crime reporters. Another ironical fact and another opportunity lost!

Positive and responsible reporting can actually save lives. Research identifies that the way suicide is reported can reduce suicide rates. Reporting that describes suicide as being a tragic waste and an avoidable loss, and focuses on the devastating impact of the act on others, has been linked to reduced rates of suicide.

Having a helpline number at the end of report encourages help seeking. An ecological study to identify associations between media item content and short-term changes in suicide rates was recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. An analysis of nearly 500 media reports of suicide over six months and its relationship to suicide rates in the community were studied.  Explicit and elaborate content of the media item and repetitive reporting of the same attempt were related to increasing suicide rates. However, they also noted that coverage of positive coping in adverse circumstances and reports about `mastery in a crisis’ or finding solutions to problems, actually decreased suicide rates.

Civil society, parents, teachers and professionals must constantly question whether a suicide report is really needed. Several newspapers across the world have developed their own code of ethics about reporting of sensitive topics such as suicide. Journalists and editors of Indian newspapers should spend some time on self reflection-do we really need to report this suicide, what impact will it have on the vulnerable people who are reading it? Am I following the guidelines for responsible reporting, or are there chances that my reporting may cause another precious life to be lost?

(The writer is professor of psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bangalore)

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