19 Dec 2012

Media Silence On Suicide Isn't Helping

By Frances Nolan

It's long been standard journalistic practice to avoid reporting suicides. Here's why Frances Nolan believes it is vital that the taboo on reporting youth suicide be lifted

The Australian media likes to talk about suicide on one day of the year: 10 September, World Suicide Prevention Day. Youth suicide largely remains out of the media for the other 364 days of the year.

This year a common thread throughout the media was evident; there needs to be a change. The Age featured an article by Professor Patrick McGorry titled, A deadly silence that has to end.  On the same day, he was also a guest on ABC's 774 Morning program advocating greater public discussion of youth suicide.

Despite efforts such as these to bring this taboo out into the open, the silence continues.

Two years ago, a lecturer in a fourth year journalism subject was discussing ethical journalism. An example of this, she said, is respecting the unspoken rule that journalists should not report suicide. It is not even an "unspoken" rule; it is in clear black and white in the Australian Press Council's Standards Relating to Suicide. These guidelines ask journalists to avoid reporting suicides, but in cases when reporting cannot be avoided, methods are not to be described. The lecturer's obedience to this rule made me ask the question: is this really the best way the Australian media can contribute to a reduction in the suicide rates? She did not know that three years earlier I had lost a sister to suicide.

The Press Council's recommendation is largely based on the Werther Effect theory. This model predicts that personal accounts and depictions of suicide prompts those at risk to follow suit. Journalists accept the idea that when suicides are reported, in particular the methods of suicides, there's risk of a copycat effect. The organisation MindFrame has played an influential role in the journalists' guidelines surrounding suicide. See MindFrame's media guidelines here.

One research project challenges this assumption. A 1995 Australian research study conducted by sociologist Riaz Hassan from Flinders University, indicated that certain types of suicide reporting could actually decrease suicide rates. This reporting was characterised by suicide portrayed as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss.

We need more research into the possible damaging effects of the lack of media attention to youth suicide. Could the silence strengthen the taboo that surrounds this topic?  This question was posed by Dr Erminia Colucci, specialist in youth suicides, in her submission to the Senate Inquiry into Suicide Prevention 2009. It is still unanswered.

The 2009 Senate Inquiry received an overwhelming number of submissions from people who had lost a loved to suicide. While the voices of experts currently dominate the debate the cries of these grieving families also need to be heard. They help us understand the horror and anguish that accompanies suicide. Perhaps if those who have died at their own hands truly understood the devastation it would cause, they would have made different choices. Perhaps if my sister knew she'd leave a pool of urine behind her that my mother would later mop up, hanging would not have been her method.

The investigation by the Victorian Coroner's Court into youth suicides currently underway doesn't address the role of media silence. Instead they focus on the impacts of social media and the reporting of youth suicides in funeral notices. But over the last 10 years suicide rates have hardly changed. What we're doing now is no different from we were doing a decade ago, and it is clearly not working.

Bold initiatives have achieved results in other areas of public health. The Traffice Accident Commission television campaign designed to reduce the road toll has been praised by health professionals as it managed to debunk the culture around drink driving condemning those who did drink and drive as "bloody idiots". This campaign used shock tactics and importantly, repetition to get the message across. It focussed on the physical and emotional damage the bloody idiots' actions caused. A suicide prevention campaign designed specifically to target the suicidal should also focus on the destructive consequences of their potential action. Youth suicide needs to be un-glorified. The romance of Juliet needs to be removed and replaced with the tragedy of Cordelia, Shakespeare's young girl hanged to death leaving others to believe she had killed herself. Her father later dies from his grief. His heartbreak depicts the destructive consequence of suicide. It is the consequences of suicide we should remember.

Indeed, the very term "suicide" warrants revision. We need new words. Suicide can refer to a 75-year-old man with cardio-vascular disease who kills himself after his wife has passed away. It also refers to a 16-year-old school girl who jumps off a train platform in front a moving train. These tragedies cannot be compared.

The reasons are different, so the solutions must be different. Above all, a conversation needs to be started. We need more talk about about the methods — we know what they are anyway. We must learn from the past.

If you need support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 10:48

Thanks Frances for a very important and well written piece

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 14:58

Thank you Frances for a sensitive discussion on this issue. It is disappointing to see that little has changed since I wrote a piece for New Matilda over a year ago when the Guidelines were first published


The more discussion there is the better. Kind regards john pitt

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 15:31

an interesting, useful article - thanks.

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 15:56

this is a good article to raise a sensitive issue. I'm not sure that the response, as a public, that should be taken, should follow other commercials/approaches that we see on TV? We see speeding (Speed Kills), driving while fatigued (Powernaps), alcohol and drug use with driving (Bloody Idiot), driving while using mobile phone, health risks of smoking, alcohol fueled violence, domestic violence, Workplace Health and Safety, working smoke alarms, being Fire Ready...these are all on TV, but how much are all these effective already? There are tragedies every week.

A person contemplating suicide often won't be thinking or caring about the emotions of other people - after all - they are at their own emotional extreme of coping...not functioning very well. And as to suicide being "glorified" - is it? I don't think so. Targetting those who are suicidal amongst us - how do we do this - surely they already feel targetted and let-down by society, their own self, their family and friends anyway...will an advert "targetting" them actually help them? Youth suicide has a distinct character from other suicides, and each other circumstance has its own set of complexities, how does an advert cover all complexities? Youth suicide has bullying as one origin - wouldn't adverts add to the bullying?

I find some adverts on TV affect me emotionally because they relate to old trauma of my own - especially the fire ones and domestic violence ones. I have a friend who falls apart every time she sees the Workplace Safety adverts because she lost her husband and the one where the police come to the front door really upsets her...so adverts can upset other people too...and open old wounds.

More needs to be done, but I'm not sure if public campaigns are the way to go. School programs would be better. Parenting and community groups/sporting groups need education. I think it is only going to get worse, it is a sign of the times, a social disease.

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 15:56

Your article raises a few questions for me, I'm quite ignorant of the research etc so can only comment as a 'man in the street'. I can see suicide is becoming more of an issue and I guess the only thing we can do is change the guidelines and 'test & measure'. My concern is that reposting goes against what we are told about other issues eg the more kids see a behaviour (guns, smoking, drug use etc) the more likely they are to emulate it. This is why companies spend a lot of money on product placement and advertising (smoking is a good example of this) and why lobby groups want to get as much media exposure as possible eg the gay community are now over-represented in TV shows. They want 'normalise' the behaviour and influence viewers to engage/accept it. So, if you have a lot more reporting of suicide won't this normalise it and increase the behaviour? My other concern is for the families left behind - it is distressing, embarrassing etc for them and this will be even more so if it is across the national news. I've worked with a few families where there has been a suicide and it is tremendously difficult on them. People make their own decision to terminate their life but they often don't consider the long term impact on others so I'm all for the families having a say.


This user is a New Matilda supporter. josken1
Posted Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 23:07

Mannie De Saxe
<i>"..........and why lobby groups want to get as much media exposure as possible eg the gay community are now over-represented in TV shows. They want ‘normalise’ the behaviour and influence viewers to engage/accept it."</i>
<b>This is the sort of homophobic nonsense which tells isolated young gay people that it is not OK to be gay, and their response is to commit suicide.
Young gay people are, according to recent available statistics, more than 4 to 6 times more likely than their straight peers to commit suicide.</b>
Submissions to the suicide inquiry a few years ago indicated that there was too much silence on this taboo topic and it is beyond time to speak out about it.
For many years the "beyondblue" group was totally hostile to the idea that they were there to help gay, lesbian, transgender and HIV/AIDS (GLTH) members of our communities who suffered from depression and had ideations of suicide.
Fortunately that seems to have changed recently, but while homophobia is still such an issue in our communities -and even more so in rural and regional areas where help is difficult to come by and young GLTH people live in isolation - suicide will continue to be an issue.
It needs more exposure and discussion in the MSM, but the question is whether they have the courage to do something about it.
Mannie De Saxe

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Friday, December 21, 2012 - 13:05

Frances raises a very interesting distinction between two types of suicide. One type is not wishing to live because of extreme disability or physical disability, which becomes intolerable with loss, as described by her. This is entirely rational self euthanasia.
My conclusions two middled aged suicides which I knew about was that they were cop-outs where the men were unable to cope. One was left with young children when his wife was killed in a road accldent and the other took on too many good works where he got overloaded and felt too much responsibility when things went wrong as they so often do in such matters, while trying to be a good father.
Another case was a youth still at school. It came out of the blue, nobody had the faintest premonition. He was not bullied, the family was stable with siblings. He was not under pressure to perform, so inability to cope didn't seem to be an issue.. The only clue was that he was regarded as a bit of a thinker. How does one anticipate?
I think that there is a further trouble with males. they don't discuss it. They just go out and do it.

Posted Friday, December 21, 2012 - 19:03

I'm interested to observe that my lengthy, carefully considered comment was moderated out. This seems particularly ironic given that the main point of the article seems to be that we need to be able to talk about suicide. Apparently whoever is moderating comments on this site does not agree. I really do hope that one day we will be able to have a mature, earnest public conversation about topics like suicide. I'm disappointed that New Matilda is unwilling to provide a forum for such discussion.

I'll try to make my two main points once again, this time as blandly and diplomatically as I can manage, in the hope that that way they might see the light of day:

1. If we want to reduce suicide we need to try to help the suicidal to improve their lot. Suicide has actual CAUSES. People don't kill themselves on a random whim. Until we can admit this and work to address the suffering which induces people to consider suicide we will be wasting our time. Trying to guilt people out of suicide (as the article seems to advocate) without also trying to help them to address the problems which have caused them to consider suicide in the first place seems not only unhelpful but frankly cruel.

2. Talking about suicide is pointless unless this conversation is one which involves the suicidal. Preaching to the suicidal in a public-health message kind of format, portraying them as sick, selfish and bad, is utterly pointless. Firstly, this will make them feel WORSE about themselves, adding additional feelings of guilt, inadequacy, etc., and further alienate them. This is more likely to contribute to suicide than prevent it. Secondly, a conversation excluding the suicidal is necessarily a conversation among ignorant parties, a case of the blind leading the blind, and therefore one which will never lead to any productive insights into how to prevent suicide.

Can I lastly (please, mods!) add that I find the blaming tone of the article quite ...troubling? I really don't think that the attitude expressed in the article is helpful to the cause of preventing suicide. I'd like to be more specific about this (and also raise some additional points I haven't mentioned), but I'm pretty sure that this would just result in this comment being moderated out as well.

Bob Karmin
Posted Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 18:54

Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story...

According to his own website, sociologist Prof Riaz Hassan published one paper on the relation between media reporting and suicide in 1995. That article was entitled "Effects of Newspaper stories on the incidence of suicide in Australia: A research note" and was published on pp 480-483 of the 29th Volume of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 1995 (A peer reviewed journal).

The "research project" conducted by Prof Hassan and his associates was aimed at measuring the increase in suicide rates after media reporting. In essence, Prof Hassan et al. were trying to measure the "Werther effect" referred to in the article above. They were not trying to disprove it, nor challenge it.

For the sake of clarity I'll say it again: nowhere in the article does Prof Hassan challenge the assumed existence of a "Werther effect theory" (as claimed by Mr Nolan).

In fact, Prof Hassan argues the exact opposite by stating that "high impact suicide newspaper stories raise the risk of vulnerable persons" and then adds "although it is difficult to say precisely how this happens." (p 482)

In fairness, in the article Prof Hassan reported that a more pronounced "Werther effect" can be observed amongst males as opposed to females.

Nevertheless, the only relevant conclusion drawn by Prof Hassan is that "bearing in mind the possible impact of media reports on vulnerable people, a more careful and sensitive approach to reporting suicide may reduce this impact, thus resulting in fewer deaths." (p 483)

On any reading of the article then, it is clear that Prof Hassan is advocating a more sensitive and subtle reporting of suicide in the media in order to reduce the Werther effect, because he can't be sure how it works exactly.

It is misleading to suggest that Prof Hassan conducted research into "the possible damaging effects of the lack of media attention to youth suicide."

Given the information outlined above I pose the following questions to NM:

a) Is Prof Hassan aware that his work is being used in a misleading way?

b) When and where will NM publish a formal correction? (In accordance with the APC's General Principle No.2)

c) Is Mr Nolan aware of the Australian Press Council's other guidelines? Specifically, is he familiar with General Principle No.1? (i.e. Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.)

Posted Friday, January 18, 2013 - 23:46

Whilst there will always be debate about the most appropriate way to report suicide, the statement that the death of a 75 year old through suicide after the death of his wife cannot be compared with the death through suicide of a 16 year old girl is deeply flawed. Although there are obvious differences, they are both tragedies that our society should be working to prevent. Older men have amongst the highest suicide rates in Australia. The most common cause is depression, a treatable condition at any age. It must not be confused with euthenasia or ' assisted suicide'.

Interested readers can find more recent information at http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/LIFE-News.html