By Linda Carroll
How the media reports on suicides may impact whether others decide to kill themselves in the days following the original death, a study suggests
An international team of researchers analyzed newspaper reports and suicide patterns over a four-year period to determine if any sort of coverage was more – or less – likely to spark copycat attempts.
“We’re not saying that reporting about suicides is bad or that news organizations shouldn’t report on suicide issues,” said study coauthor Dr. Ayal Schaffer, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “But we know that specific aspects of reporting can have a significant effect on suicide contagion. This has been shown across many different groups and many different countries.”
It’s important to realize that certain features of a story can decrease or increase the likelihood that others will try to kill themselves afterward, Schaffer said.
“There’s a 1 to 2 percent variance in suicide rates that are due to media reporting,” he explained. “Doing a quick calculation, in the world there are approximately 800,000 people who die each year by suicide – and that’s probably an underestimate. But even a change of 1 to 2 percent would be associated with a reduction of 8,000 to 16,000 deaths.”
As reported in CMAJ, the researchers gathered print and online reports published in the Toronto media market from 2011 to 2014. The 6,367 stories in which suicide was the major focus came from 12 major Canadian publications as well as one U.S. newspaper with high circulation in Toronto (The New York Times).
Schaffer’s team also obtained a list of people who died by suicide in Toronto between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2014
The researchers then looked for an association between certain features in the stories and an uptick in the number of people who killed themselves in the week after the accounts were published.
Among the factors that appeared to create an uptick were: the suicide method appearing in the headline, reports that firearm suicides had the highest lethality, heavy detail on the suicide method, and statements that made suicide seem inevitable.
Certain features appeared to be protective, but the associations found by the researchers weren’t statistically significant, meaning the association might have been due to chance. People were less likely to try to copycat if the deceased was described in a negative light, for example.
“When people can really relate to the person in the story, they’re more likely to see themselves going down the same path,” Schaffer said. “Our hope is that stories will portray the death as a lost opportunity – if this person had gotten help he might have survived. Most people who try to kill themselves are ambivalent. They are suffering. And most just want relief. If we can provide them with relief they can get through the suicidal crisis.”
Schaffer and his colleagues hope that by studying the phenomenon in a scientific way, they’ll convince more journalists to handle stories about suicide with care
The new study may actually be underestimating the effects of the media because it only looked at one week after the suicide, said Mark Reinecke, head of psychology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“I think we’ve known for a long time that media can have an impact on suicide contagion,” said Reinecke who is not affiliated with the new study. “They’ve unpacked that and shown the specific types of information included in media can have an impact on outcomes. I think they are quite right.”
Stories can have a positive effect if they shed light on the role of mental health issues, said Dr. David Brent, a professor of psychiatry and the Endowed Chair in Suicide Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “And certainly you can say something about the devastating effect the suicide has on people,” said Brent who is not affiliated with the new research.
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