Mental Health and Suicide

This module addresses these ethical issues:

Suicides and mental health offer a range of ethical issues for journalists. Both can figure in important, even sensational, stories. But journalists should be fair to the people involved and conscientious toward the impact of these stories on the community.

What suicides are worth covering as news events? The suicides of major newsmakers, certainly. But what about a student who dies by suicide at school? Or a popular teacher in your community who kills herself at home?

If the person involved is not a celebrity, many media ask first whether the suicide was publicly disruptive. A suicide in a school lunchroom or a busy public place could be considered disruptive enough to merit news coverage that focuses on the act of suicide.

In contrast, the teacher who died at home might be handled more as an obituary, focusing — as obituaries usually do — on the person and her accomplishments. The fact that she died by suicide could be put lower in the story.

Researchers and advocates focus on the important role media coverage plays in suicide as a public health issue. Multiple cases and studies have shown that suicide contagion — an increase in future suicides stemming from coverage of a current case — is related to particular types of media choices, yet some evidence suggests that coverage hastens deaths but doesn’t raise the overall rate of suicide. Stories that specifically detail the method of death, use graphic images or headlines, sensationalize a death, or glorify the deceased all have the potential to increase the risk of future suicides.

Suicide is indeed an important public health issue and raises increased concern with particularly vulnerable populations, including youth, veterans and some racial or ethnic minorities. Yet it’s important to avoid sensationalizing trends through the language of epidemics, such as “skyrocketing rates.” Increases or decreases in rates should be covered proportionally, not sensationally.

Advocates are careful to focus on other language used to describe suicide, as well. They generally advise avoiding the phrases “committed suicide,” as it implies criminal behavior, and “took her own life,” as it often is part of dramatic or emotional constructions, and suggest using “died by suicide” or “killed himself” instead. Stories also should avoid describing suicide as an “escape” for a person or suggest that a suicide results from a single life event, such as losing a job or the breakup of a relationship. Evidence is clear that more than 90 percent of suicides occur after sustained periods of mental illness or substance abuse rather than a single crisis. Suicide prevention experts are virtually unanimous in suggesting that any coverage of suicide, especially stories on a specific event, include contact information for hotlines for people in mental health crisis, though many news organizations do not do this as a matter of course.

Careful news coverage of suicide as both an event and a public health issue can correct misperceptions and debunk myths. The use of imagery can be important, as well, and organizations should avoid visual cliches. The ethical choices below cover your approach to the advice mental health organizations and suicide prevention advocates often offer to news media.

In writing about mental health in general, reporters should be careful to use verified information from people in a position to know. A neighbor who says a person “was acting weird” or a policeman who says a suspect “is understood to have mental issues” are not giving verified information or being specific about the issues involved. Many people with psychological conditions have mild disorders that are not likely to result in antisocial acts. For instance, people with depression or autism may be accused of committing violent acts, but the depression or autism themselves are not direct causes of the violent acts.

References to people as mentally ill should come from authoritative mental health, law enforcement or family sources in a position to describe the specific disorder involved.

Writers should avoid terms such as “insane” and “crazy,” which are demeaning and non-specific.

The following guidelines offer ideas for possible inclusion in your ethics code:
Reporting on Suicide, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Reporting on People Who Have a Mental Illness, Wisconsin United for Mental Health

The main authors of this section are Thomas Kent and Kathleen Bartzen Culver.

Additional Resources
Open Minds, Open Doors, Wisconsin United for Mental Health
Journalists at Tampa TV station use skill, care, expertise to cover child’s suicide, Al Tompkins, Poynter