December 16, 2009
An initiative seeks to promote more responsible reporting of suicide and mental health issues in the media. CARL O'BRIEN reports
WHEN THE long-running BBC TV series Casualty ran a storyline involving someone attempting suicide by overdose, no one foresaw the potential consequences.
A week later the number of recorded suicide attempts using the same drug jumped by almost 20 per cent. A week later the numbers were 9 per cent above average. Levels were back to normal three weeks later.
Around one-fifth of a sample group of patients interviewed after the self-harming incident said the TV programme had influenced them.
Researchers at Oxford University, who mapped the findings, said they raised serious questions about whether media representation of suicide was encouraging suicidal behaviour among vulnerable individuals.
These questions are at the heart of an initiative which seeks to promote more responsible reporting of suicide and mental health issues in the media.
Headline is a State-funded organisation which is battling to help lift the stigma surrounding emotional distress, suicidal behaviour and mental illness.
It has produced guidelines and a media pack for journalists, media professionals (and the public at large) for covering a range of mental health issues, including eating disorders, depression, mental illness and suicide.
For the most part they are simple issues to bear it mind, such as avoiding going into detail on suicide or self-harm methods; avoiding perpetuating negative myths around the subject; ensuring information on access to support is provided, where possible.
The guidelines recognise that irresponsible coverage of these issues – often unintentionally – has the potential to cause huge harm. But it also sees that the media has a potentially positive role in guiding people in distress towards sources of support.
“The resource was developed in response to the considerable pressures media professionals find themselves under when reporting on these difficult issues,” says Jane Arigho, project co-ordinator with Headline. “We hope journalists and broadcasters will find it a quick and easy way to access the information they need.”
As a journalist I’ve found covering suicide one of the most difficult things to report on. On the one hand we – the media – feel the need to represent accurately, one of the most painful aspects of contemporary Ireland which accounts for more lost lives each year than are killed on our roads.
Yet, on the other hand, we’re conscious of the distress that publicising a suicide could have on a family already struggling to come to terms with the death of a loved one.
It was easier in time gone by when society and, by extension, the media just ignored suicide.
But avoiding the topic is not in anyone’s interest. That belongs to an era when suicide was a criminal offence and those who took their own lives could be denied a proper burial.
The media has an obligation to cover one of the greatest causes of death among young people in Ireland today. And, if it does so in a responsible way, it can play a powerful role in promoting why people feel suicidal and guide them towards sources of support.
But will journalists – ever resistant to being told what to do by authority – accept these guidelines or consider them as just political correctness or, worse, censorship?
The people behind Headline hope examples of the positive role the media has played can help win them over.
For example, a study following the death of Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain found there was no overall increase in suicide rates in his hometown of Seattle.
This, researchers have said, was largely as a result of a close collaboration between media and authorities to ensure appropriate reporting took place. This focused on Cobain’s gifted musical ability, in contrast to the wastefulness of his death.
Another positive example comes from Austria, which has been grappling with the problem of suicides on its subway system.
Following the publication of media guidelines aimed at promoting more responsible reporting of suicide, the suicide rate fell significantly.
There are many good and laudable examples of news stories and feature articles in Ireland which have challenged the negative portrayal of suicide.
But we still get it horrendously wrong from time to time. The Northern Ireland edition of the Sunday World , for example, published the picture of a man hanging from a motorway bridge just over a month ago under the headline, “Halloween Horror – Grotesque”.
A total of 50 people complained to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission within days, while the paper itself was flooded with complaints. The Sunday World quickly apologised and in the following week’s edition printed dozens of letters of protest from readers over several pages, as well as offering free advertising to suicide prevention groups.
Like the rest of Irish society, the media is increasingly aware that we are all engaged in a continuing attempt to understand – and represent accurately – suicide and mental health issues. Encouragingly, the number of organisations taking an interest in the role the journalists have to play in reducing suicide and the stigma over mental health is growing. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as the Samaritans have similar guidelines, or support responsible reporting of these issues. The Office of the Press Ombudsman has been involved in consulting with the media and public on how to address this issue.
Ultimately, everyone has the same objective: that by tackling the problem more effectively, we will get to the point that we are not reporting on suicide quite so often.
For further information, visit: www.headline.ie (Guidelines and a multimedia resource pack on responsible reporting are at www.headline.ie/multimedia-resource)
Reporting on suicide: points to bear in mind
INCLUDE DETAILS FOR SOURCES OF HELP
It’s always helpful to include contact details for sources of help and support for people who may be in distress or in need of information.
Many myths surround mental health problems and journalists should take care not to perpetuate them. For example, people with mental health difficulties, for example, are frequently represented as being violent and unpredictable. The truth is most people with mental health problems are not.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE
Certain terms used when reporting mental health problems can be deeply offensive and stigmatising.
Referring to a person with a mental health problem as a ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, ‘looney’, ‘nut’, ‘maniac’ and so on is highly offensive.
Encourage people to understand the complexity of suicide rather than trying to unnecessarily simplify the issues