Best of DPSN: Charlotte Dawson and suicide reporting in the media

We’re back with another ‘Best of DPSN’ blog. This one was from March last year, after the death of Charlotte Dawson. Barbara reflects on the way media reports suicide, and society’s views of mental illness…

I’ve thought a lot about suicide reporting in the media since the death of Charlotte Dawson, just over three weeks ago.  Suicide was not mentioned in any of the news articles that reported her death.  But of course, we all seem to know that was exactly what happened.  Because we know that when a sudden death is reported, with “no suspicious circumstances” and no other explanation, it typically means a suicide.

So why does the media completely refuse to report a suicide as a suicide?

In New Zealand at least, the Coroners Act (2006) specifies that “If a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no person may make public a particular of the death other than – a) the name, address and occupation of the person concerned; and b) the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted.”  In other words, you can report a death as a suicide…you just have to leave out the details of how it happened. 

The suicide reporting media guidelines for New Zealand also stop short of specifically stating not to report a death as a suicide.  In fact, the guidelines recommend that news articles should explore the complex risk factors and causes associated with suicide, but not specify the method or location of the particular death being reported, in line with the legal obligations of the Coroners Act.

So why is a suicide never named as such in the New Zealand media?  I find it particularly bizarre that news outlets regularly publish horrific details of child abuse, violence, torture, gory accidents and war on a daily basis.  So why not the details of a suicide?

The main justification has been around the fear of “suicide contagion” or “copycat” behaviour.  The idea is that if suicides are reported publicly, then those who are vulnerable might consider it to be an option.  It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds I suppose – the fear is that by regularly reporting suicides, it might “normalise” them as an appropriate thing to do when faced with extremely difficult life circumstances.

There has been a large amount of research looking at the links between media publicity and suicide rates – and most of it is inconclusive.  There is a huge amount of difficulty demonstrating a clear and direct link between publicity and an increase in suicides, since there is typically a number of complex factors involved.  While some studies have suggested there may be a link, others have shown that reporting suicides appropriately, including discussing information about risk factors and ways in which to access support, can actually minimise any risk of copycat behaviour.

While there is ongoing debate as to the significance of the link between media reports and suicide rates, I think that we’ve now swung too far in the other direction.  Our current situation is that media will not so much as mention the word “suicide”.  Personally, I think that the fear of suicide contagion is a convenient excuse not to talk about something that most people still find extremely scary and taboo. I believe that not mentioning the word “suicide” comes purely from a place of fear and lack of understanding about the complex causes of mental illness.

In reality, a death can be reported as a suicide legally, with any risk of copycat behaviour minimised by not sensationalising the story (although some media commentators may admittedly find this pretty difficult), discussing the complex risk factors involved, and providing plenty of information on where to go for help.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that NOT mentioning suicide does considerably more harm than good.  When we use euphemisms like “no suspicious circumstances” and refuse to acknowledge the complex contributing factors, we only increase the shame and taboo around suicide and mental illness.  The more we stigmatise suicide, the less likely those who are considering taking their own life are to ask for help.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding and acceptance of mental illness.  The tricky issue of suicide is one of our last hurdles.  We need to talk about it openly and honestly if we ever want to move forward in our understanding, and better support those who need it most.

Related reading: The Neglected Suicide Epidemic : The New Yorker

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