Suicide and the Media

Spent most of Thursday at a forum on suicide and the media co-chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman (PM’s Chief Science Advisor) and the Chief Coroner. A dozen or so to researchers were there, along with various media people, and also various government people. 37 people in total.

The background to the forum was last year a set of new guidelines for the media in reporting of suicides was formulated. Some of the health professionals felt that they didn’t cover the science adequately, so hence the forum was to allow an exchange of views.

There was at times some fairly heated exchanges, but most of the time it was just interesting presentations and discussions. Some stats on suicide:

  • Largest class of death by external causes in NZ – 540 annually
  • Male suicide rates three times female rate (however more females attempt suicide)
  • Youth suicide peaked in 1995, however the female youth rate is at the  highest since 1999
  • In a natural disaster, suicide rates stay fairly constant or decline – the increased stress compensated for by the increased sense of belonging and community. However in the long-term they then increase 3 – 5 years afterwards

Globally there are at least 100,000 suicides a year.

There was a discussion on S71 of the Coroners Act:

No person may, without a coroner’s authority, make public any particular relating to the manner in which a death occurred if the death occurred in New Zealand after the commencement of this section; and there is reasonable cause to believe the death was self-inflicted; and no inquiry into the death has been completed.

It is quite clear that this means one can not report details around a suicide. For example you can not say “xxx killed himself by taking a drug overdose” or  even worse “xxx killed himself by tying a rope around the beam in his bedroom, stepping up on a chair, and kicking the chair away to hang himself”.

There is strong evidence that the reporting of such details can sometimes lead to copycat deaths.

However what is not clear is whether S71 means the media can’t report the fact a death appeared to be suicide, without any details of the suicide. Can you say “xxx killed himself”? Some in the media say you can, some health professionals say even that can be harmful, and the Coroner prefers media indicate suicide by using phrases such as “There are no suspicious circumstances” or “No one is being sought in connection with the death”.

On a couple of occassions I have reported the suicide of a friend, and called it suicide. I think in an interactive medium, being coy is likely to lead to speculation, which can be unhelpful. I also made the point to the forum than now when most young people die, they have a Facebook page and their friends all go there to talk about what happened, how they are feeling etc – and 14 years olds are not too worried about S71 of the Coroners Act.

Having said that, there is some risk around the quite natural tendency to mourn someone who has killed themselves. If their Facebook page becomes a shrine to them, that can encourage other vulnerable youth to think that suicide is a good thing, as it will get people talking about how much they will miss you and what a good guy or girl you were.  So one of the challenges is that when someone kills themselves, to try and encourage comments on their social media sites to not unduly glorify them.

People may be interested in some of the don’ts in the media guidelines. They include:

  • Don’t simplify the cause of death. They are normally complex.
  • Don’t specify in detail the method or location
  • Don’t just focus on the person’s positive characteristics
  • Don’t encourage over simplification of the death by contributing it to a single cause
  • Don’t blame suicide on texting or Facebook etc.
  • Don’t use phrases such as “X successfully killed himself”
Talking of Facebook, one of the participants had a really good novel idea. He said that rather than see social media as a liability, see it as an opportunity. He proposed that agreement be sought from social media companies that if a list of their users who had killed themselves were given to them, they provide the deceased’s full  data history to researchers.
Imagine the power of that data. At present data is collected from indirect sources such as family and friends.  Imagine being able to look at if there are any significant common patterns amongst those who kill themselves, such as what times they were writing, how often a day they updated, how many friends they had, what sort of words or phrases in common etc etc. This could be very important data in identifying people at a high risk of suicide.

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