Reporting on suicide, self-harm and mental ill health during the spread of Covid-19

Media reporting of suicide can raise the risk of imitation suicidal behaviour among at-risk audiences.

Reduced social contact or self-isolation due to Covid-19 can intensify anxiety among people who are already at risk of self-harming behaviour.

Because of this, it is more important than ever for media professionals to be aware of the suicide reporting guidelines. The full guidelines can be found here, but we would also like to highlight several particularly relevant elements of the guidelines.

Oversimplifying a reason for suicide

Suicide is the result of a complexity of factors in a person’s life and cannot be reduced to one explanation or ‘trigger’.

Highlighting a simplified reason for a suicide in a broadcast or print report increases the chances that at-risk individuals with similar experiences may identify with the person who has died, and this in turn may raise their risk of dying by suicide.

It is especially important not to speculate on the reason for a suicide in the headline of an article. e.g. ‘SHE COULDN’T COPE’ ‘Beautiful and charming’ teenager, 19, killed herself as she couldn’t face coronavirus isolation

“The risk [of imitative suicidal behaviour] is most pronounced when the characteristics of the person who died by suicide and those of the reader or viewer are similar in some way and when the reader or viewer identifies with the featured person.”

World Health Organisation

It can be especially difficult to make a call on what information to include if a relative or friend of the deceased is clearly speculating on a reason or ‘trigger’ for the suicide. If you feel the information given to you by this person cannot be omitted, you can help to provide balance by including an expert opinion about the complexity of factors which lead to an individual suicide.

Friends say her utter dread over release of the police bodycam footage may have driven her to suicide. However, Samaritans advice states: ‘There is no simple explanation for why someone chooses to die by suicide and it is rarely due to one particular factor.’

Sensational reporting, especially in headlines

Sensational reporting on suicide has also been linked to an increase in imitative behaviour among at risk groups. Use of the word suicide or of suicide-related terminology in the headline draws unnecessary attention to this aspect of the story.

It is especially crucial not to combine references to coronavirus/Covid-19 with suicide terminology in the headline of an article. An at-risk person scrolling through their newsfeed may find themselves affected by such a headline, and this effect will be compounded if multiple similar headlines appear in a short period of time.

GOING THROUGH HELL Coronavirus – Italian intensive care nurse ‘kills herself out of guilt after catching bug and fearing she’d spread it’

Coronavirus: Four footballers on suicide watch due to mental health fears of lockdown

Nurse working coronavirus frontlines dies by suicide

Coronavirus: Nurse ‘takes own life in UK hospital’ where eight have died from bug

HAUNTING NOTE Photographer, 64, asked ‘how can you enjoy life’ in suicide note before jumping to his death during coronavirus lockdown

Use of phrases such as ‘suicide epidemic’ should also be avoided. These can be replaced with more neutral fact-based statements such as ‘increase in the number of suicides’.

Creating a link between individual deaths by suicide

Try to avoid creating a link between individual deaths by suicide. (i.e. don’t reference a suicide you see as ‘similar’ in some way when reporting on the death of another person.) Even if some of the circumstances may appear similar, reasons for suicide are complex and unique to each individual.

It is crucial not to frame the effects of COVID-19 as a commonality between people who have taken their own lives. To do so risks normalising suicide as a valid response during this time of upheaval.

Including helplines

It’s more important than ever before to signpost a comprehensive list of trusted mental health services, supports and information when reporting on suicide or mental ill health.

Providing balance by reporting stories of resilience

Many people who are experiencing mental health difficulties during this time are finding ways to help themselves and/or help others. Reporting on these stories of resilience can help at-risk readers and viewers to see alternative ways of dealing with the challenge we are all facing.

Minimise the risk of unintentionally harming your audiences by following these guidelines.

Your choice of words can save lives.

This message is supported by our partners in the National Office for Suicide Prevention, the National Suicide Research Foundation, Samaritans Ireland and Shine