It’s occurred to me repeatedly over the course of this trip that, given the severity and scale of the issues contained within Greece’s economic and refugee crises, depression and suicide will hover in the backdrop of most – if not, more likely, all – of the stories related to dislocated, marginalized, persecuted populations that we commit to covering.
As such, it feels absolutely imperative to me to take the time to introduce anyone on this worthwhile and potentially meaningful Dialogue who is not yet aware of them to a set of guidelines laid forth by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention intended to help journalists be on the right side of written mental health advocacy.
Even before getting into it, why should I listen to these guidelines, you may ask? The answer’s simple: your words matter.
Mental illness and suicide in particular have long been stigmatized aspects of human psychology, which has allowed for both issues to become heavily distorted and frequently misrepresented in the public eye. Though regulations in areas like health services are changing, and societies are shifting to address the health needs of those at risk with greater delicacy and compassion, certain stigmas remain rampant.
For example, the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” discusses the suicide of a teenage girl; among other cardinal sins in its depiction, it perpetuates the idea that suicide is someone’s fault, rather than the result of a mental illness like depression. It is almost never the case that suicides occur without some mental illness having a role to play. Numerous forms of media perpetuate similar misconceptions about suicide and mental illness. Adjusting one’s writing format is an easy way to combat that and stop spreading ideas that fundamentally erase or ignore aspects of the issues to which they’re related.
More than 50 research studies conducted across multiple countries have concluded that certain kinds of news coverage can increase at-risk individuals’ likelihood of suicide; myriad factors related to the publication of certain kinds of news coverage about suicide, including tone, duration, and prominence, all have a role to play.
And so it is crucial to educate journalists to correctly write about and report on suicide and mental illness; it’s through their words that the public image of both issues is shaped.
Here we go, starting with a big one: suicide is no longer considered a crime, nor is it a sin. Therefore, the common parlance that someone “commits” suicide is both inaccurate and – when one considers the deep social and cultural roots associated with “committing” an act aimed at ending a life – stigmatizing. “Commit” suggests condemnation of the person in struggle, as opposed to the compassion with which most journalists would agree it is more responsible to greet them. Instead, why not use “died by suicide” or “takes their life?” The same meaning is conveyed without the use of a word historically linked to criminal action.
It’s separately a really bad idea, though one that’s painfully common in writing about suicide, to describe the method of death. Though it’s sometimes tempting to sway into sensationalism in describing how a desperate individual would choose to end their life in a particular manner, this practice is deleterious to anyone living with suicidal ideation. Studies show that describing in detail a person’s means of dying by suicide increases the risk of copycat suicides – and that risk rises with the amount of time an article spends discussing, often sensationally, the manner of death. Reporters needn’t give someone wrestling with thoughts of suicide specific details of how they can carry out their own.
Another important point is to emphasize that suicide is rarely if ever the result of a single incident. Just because someone, for example, lost their restaurant during the financial crisis, focusing on that detail at the expense of investigating the depression with which they’d lived for years prior completely squanders an opportunity to talk openly and helpfully about the realities of suicide and its roots in mental illness.
It’s critical, as well, to be cautious with presentations of suicides in journalism. Framing a death by suicide against a larger issue of suicides can be important, but if you’re going to use terms like “spree” or “epidemic,” you need to do the research through examining CDC data and contacting experts in the field to verify that those terms are in fact applicable at the point in time when you’re writing the article. Or, you could just use less sensational words such as “uptick” or “rise.”
Finally – and this is important – every journalist should know that the mental illness advocacy community is not closed off to them. Any questions about how to talk about suicide can be directed to any number of AFSP, CDC, Samaritans, or Lifeline officials, who will be more than happy to explain how specific grafs or phrases should be approached, and there are lots of resources like AFSP’s cheatsheet that can provide direction. It’s paramount, when dealing with issues of such weight, to get it right. That’s something we owe to those struggling with an oft-stigmatized mental illness, who rely on the press for fair and accurate coverage that doesn’t perpetuate myths or faulty ideas – and, moreover, it’s something we owe to our craft, and to our intentions, permanent may they be, of retaining its integrity and purpose.