Media Silence On Suicide Isn't Helping


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.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.