In my wallet I carry a little folded sheet about the size of a credit card. It’s a crib sheet, something to refer to if I encounter someone thinking of taking their life, someone who is suicidal. It’s called Suicide First Aid, a guide to what to do when you’re talking to a person on the edge of life.
The concept of first aid is borrowed from the more conventional field: giving mouth-to-mouth, of saving someone who has clear physical injuries, who might be bleeding to death.
Sure, you can see those physical signs, can administer band aids and splints and all sorts. With someone who has suicidal thoughts the first aid treatment is different. First you need to make contact, human contact that shows you care, that you are willing to listen and engage.
Suicide is one of the last taboos. It’s a word still saturated with stigma, even though as a society we are becoming more sensitive to those with a mental illness. Not that all those who take their life are mentally unwell — suicide comes in many forms, it can be impulsive often, or it can have been well planned, down to the last detail.
Until now, journalists have been discouraged from reporting on suicide because it was understood that it might encourage those who are considering self-harm to take the next step.
But this week the Australian Press Council published a new set of standards regarding the reporting of suicide in the media.
The guidelines now encourage journalists to report on suicide, even with details they may have once shied away from, but to do so responsibly. However, the council still recommends caution when "material is likely to be read or seen by people who may be especially vulnerable (that is because of their age or mental health)".
This change is important because it acknowledges what mental health professionals have known for some time: discussion of suicide can actually benefit the community by making people aware of signals someone might be contemplating taking their own life.
In a review of 90 studies on the impact of reportage of suicide in 20 countries the Centre for Suicide Research at Oxford University found that "highlighting risk factors and providing the telephone numbers of crisis lines can have positive effects, encouraging people to seek help".
The new Australian standards also allow for the identification of an individual where that is in the public interest and the consent of family or friends has been given.
What can happen now is not so much related to the daily news machine of reporting someone’s death "in unexplained circumstances" (that is suicide) but in the reflective comment of writers in the feature columns and magazines who have the space, and the time, to give reasoned and informed reflection on suicide and the possible reasons for suicide in this country.
We are so used to being told in the media and by politicians about how lucky we are to be living in Australia right now, how the country survived the GFC and so on that it’s easy to forget there are plenty not doing it good: those in isolated rural communities, for instance; the homeless; the anxious and the recently unemployed; males especially, and the young. It could be someone you know, someone you think you know well. Ignore the glitter and glam of advertising and reality TV shows — life is tough for many right now.
As journalists and as individuals we must listen and engage with those who have suicidal thoughts but were able, through counselling and support, to overcome the urge to take their life, as well as those who have been bereaved by another’s death.
So, if you come across someone, friend or stranger, who is contemplating suicide, who is down and not themselves, take time, engage with them; listen to their story; let them tell you what has brought them to that dark place; mention the word suicide back to them ("are you contemplating suicide?" — hearing the word spoken may well shock them, make then reconsider, at the very least know you are listening), and then consider ways they might be able to get through that day, those next few hours. Develop a plan with them that can keep them safe. Above all be with them and connect.
We are all human. We can all support one another during the good and the bad, the highs and the lows. There’s an important role here for the media too and the new Press Council guidelines that promote the sensitive reporting of suicide must be welcomed.
Suicide Call Back Service (24/7): 1300 659 467
Lifeline (24/7): 13 11 14
Living is for Everyone: National Suicide Prevention Strategy project
For young people: Reach Out
Kids Help Line for 5-25-year-olds: 1800 55 18 00
Mindframe: resources for journalists on media coverage of mental illness.
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