Exactly how the media discusses suicide is a topic of frequent debate. Plenty of research has linked media reporting of suicide with an increase in suicidal behaviour, and both the Samaritans and the World Health Organization (WHO), amongst others, have clear (and frequently promoted) guides for journalists on how to report suicide.
But such guidelines are often ignored in favour of insensitivity or sensationalism — especially when the person at hand is a celebrity. Take the recent coverage of the death of Caroline Flack: explicit, deeply intimate details were plastered across tabloids for weeks, with seemingly no thought for how those details would impact readers.
Now a new review, published in the British Medical Journal, has taken a closer look at just how serious the problem is.
The analysis included 20 studies which looked at the rate of suicides amongst the general population before and after the media had reported on suicide in print, online, or on TV. Of these, 14 studies looked at reports specifically on the death of a celebrity by suicide.
As expected, the studies found an increase in suicides during the period after the reporting of a death of a celebrity; in cases where the method was detailed, there was also an increase in the number of suicides by that same method. On average, reports of celebrity deaths by suicide were associated with an 8 to 18% increase in suicide rates in the general population, with estimates on the higher end of the scale when the celebrity in question was famous worldwide.
This pattern of results is also consistent with previous research which has found that media coverage of suicide can profoundly affect people’s mental health, the authors write. Suicidal thoughts often increase, as do feelings of low mood and low self-esteem.
As for why reports about famous people have such a large impact, one factor may be the high level of identification the general public has with celebrities. Reports may also establish suicide as a way to cope with problems, the team says.
Not all media coverage is associated with an increase in suicides, however: overall, reporting on suicide generally, rather than on a specific celebrity’s death, was not linked to an increase in deaths. However, past work has suggested that particular ways of reporting could increase risk: when suicide is depicted as “inevitable”, for instance, or when media outlets reinforced damaging myths.
Other media may also help those feeling suicidal, rather than impacting their mental health further. Some coverage features stories of healing or recovery, some offers support or advice, and some simply follow guidelines set by the Samaritans or WHO.
However, while the results do show that media reports can increase the risk of suicide among the general population, it’s also important not to draw too direct a conclusion from the findings. Suicide is a complex, nuanced thing: not only would it be irresponsible to place the blame at the door of one institution, media outlet or other specific cause, it would also be counter to the very guidelines in place to protect people. The Samaritans guidelines, for example, warn against “over-simplification of the causes or perceived triggers for a suicide”, which are “unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide”. Drawing a direct and simple line between media coverage and suicide does not adhere to that suggestion itself.
But, limitations aside, the analysis does have important ramifications. Guidelines do already exist, and exist for a reason: following them is hugely important when it comes to protecting mental health. Journalists may already be aware of such guidelines — but making sure they apply them to their own work is key.
In the UK, you can call Samaritans for free any time on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org