Expert Insights 10

Marc BryantExpert Insights are a chance for professionals working in the suicide prevention sector to gain access to the leaders of their field. LIFE collects your questions around a particular topic and passes them on to an elected expert for consideration. The expert responses are then published here on the LIFE site. If you'd like to suggest a topic or an expert for a future edition of Expert Insights, please contact us.

Contributor: Marc Bryant, Mindframe National Media Initiative

Marc Bryant manages the MindframeNational Media Initiative at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health where he is the 'Community, Media and Arts' Program Manager. Marc has more than 16 years’ experience working in and with the media, both as a senior print journalist (UK), and communication for the National Health Service (UK) and the South Australian Health Department, before joining the Hunter Institute in 2009.

*Mindframe recently launched their new-look resources, developed with the media industry. Please follow Mindframe on Twitter via @MindframeMedia and #MindframeMedia

For immediate 24/7 support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Question 1

Does media reporting of celebrities experiencing mental illness or personal crises normalise these issues, or create further distress in vulnerable people?

Suicide and mental illness are complex issues and journalists are often faced with questions about whether to report and how to report. When a celebrity experiences mental illness, attempts suicide or dies by suicide it is likely that the media will cover this, given the community’s general interest in celebrity news. The effect can be variable, however, depending on what the story is about and the way it is framed.

We know, for example, that stories of people living with mental illness are engaging and provide an opportunity to talk about mental illness from a personal perspective. Celebrity news usually gets extensive coverage so if stories about celebrities living with mental illness are positively framed, they can be a powerful tool in breaking down stigma associated with mental illness and can encourage other to seek help. On the other hand, stories can also trivialise the seriousness of mental illness by presenting it as entertainment or gossip. In these cases, the outcomes would be less positive and may reinforce stereotypes and decrease the chance people will seek help.

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Question 2

Does media reporting of celebrity suicide increase the risk of ‘copycat’ suicides?

When it comes to reporting on celebrity suicide, again the issue is complex. While we know that personal stories of how people overcame suicidal thinking may encourage others to seek help from friends, families or professionals. On the other hand, stories profiling someone who died by suicide appear to carry the greatest risk of copycat behaviour. This risk appears to increase where there is a celebrity death, firstly because the death is often extensively covered and secondly because vulnerable people may identify with, or admire, the celebrity who died.

With celebrity suicides we have to accept that these are newsworthy and will almost always be reported, but media are reminded that coverage of a celebrity suicide can glamourise and normalise suicide. Given the potential impact of any celebrity suicide, media are encouraged to:

  • refrain from reporting the death as a suicide until confirmed by official sources to reduce speculation
  • avoid adding specific details about the method or location of death
  • promote help-seeking information.
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Question 3

Can media reporting of suicide deaths have a positive impact? In what way?

Suicide is an important issue of community concern and a legitimate issue to be covered by the media. Research from more than100 international* studies suggests that reporting about suicide deaths has been associated with increased rates of suicide and suicide attempts following reporting. Risk generally increases where the reporting focusses on an individual who has died (especially celebrities), where the reporting is prominent and repeated, where the death is glamourised or glorified, and where the method and location is detailed.

Evidence for media reporting that can contribute to a reduction in rates is generally lacking. However, it is generally agreed that the media play an important role in reporting about the broader issue of suicide, which includes analysis of policy, practice, research, rates and trends, and other areas of public interest.

Covering suicide sensitively and accurately can challenge public misconceptions and myths, increase community awareness and encourage discussion and prevention activities. It is also helpful when the community is informed about risk factors for suicide, the importance of taking suicidal thoughts seriously and are provided with information about where people can get support.

Emerging research has indicated that coverage that focuses on personal stories about overcoming suicidal thinking can promote hope and may encourage others to seek help. In addition, reports that show the impact that suicide has on individuals and communities can increase understanding about the experiences of those affected by suicide.

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Question 4

How important is language when talking publicly about suicide?

Language is important for both reporting suicide and mental illness.

Certain ways of describing suicide can alienate members of the community or inadvertently contribute to suicide being presented as glamourous or an option for dealing with problems. Mindframe provides some basic suggestions about language for media (and others), outlined below.

Issue

Problematic

Preferred

Language that presents suicide as a desired outcome

‘successful suicide’, ‘unsuccessful suicide’

‘took their own life’, ‘ended their own life’, ‘died by suicide'

Phrases that associate suicide with ‘crime’ or ‘sin’

‘committed suicide’, ‘commit suicide’

‘died by suicide’, ‘took their own life’

Language that glamourises a suicide attempt

‘failed suicide’, ‘suicide bid’

‘made an attempt on his life’, ‘suicide attempt’, ‘non-fatal attempt’

Phrases that sensationalise suicide

‘suicide epidemic’

‘higher rates’, ‘increasing rates’, ‘concerning rates’

Gratuitous use of the term ‘suicide ‘out of context

‘suicide mission’, ‘political suicide’, ‘suicide pass’ (in sport)

refrain from using the term suicide out of context

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Question 5

What are the key challenges faced by Mindframe when working with the media on reporting mental illness and suicide?

A key challenge has been to ensure media professionals and organisations are able understand Mindframe and use it in their everyday work. The Mindframe approach has been collaborative and aims to help build their understanding through four key priorities: 

  • Priority 1: Resource redevelopment 
  • Priority 2: Education and training 
  • Priority 3: Strategic engagement 
  • Priority 4: Evidence and evaluation

We’ve worked collaboratively with the media for more than 10 years, encouraging ownership (for example includingMindframein their industry codes and editorial guidelines), which has seen the Australian industry internationally seen as the best at covering such a complex and difficult issues. To support the collaborative approach,Mindframehas a media advisory group, with broad national membership (print, broadcast, online and some specific media such as Indigenous, LGBTI and Culturally and linguistically diverse) to provide regular input to our activities and developments.

Another challenge has been to ensure those that influence and work with the media, are also acrossMindframerecommendations, such as the mental health and suicide prevention sectors, and the police. With the best intention to highlight suicide prevention, from time to time, some have encouraged the media to cover stories that may in fact do more harm than good, especially particularly when focussing on a suicide death or suicide cluster. To support the mental health and suicide prevention sectors, we have specific resources and training. We also provide resources for journalism and public relations university programs, and the Australian film, television and theatre industry. We have a range of resources for those that want to work with the media or support those that want to tell their stories, here.

The convergence of traditional media with the online environment has been a new challenge for the sector. While evidence is still emerging, recommendations should also be applied to the online area, including social media. Given the instant nature and potential reach of online posts, implementing procedures to monitor and manage message boards for posts that may be harmful or from people in crisis is recommended. Promotion of public memorials, including online memorial pages, may inadvertently reinforce suicide as a desired outcome for people at risk of suicide in a community.

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Question 6

What are the most important things for sector organisations to remember when working with the media on a story involving suicide or mental illness?

People involved in mental health and suicide prevention sectors, are key sources of information for media professionals. The majority of organisations, both government and non-government, are regularly approached by the media regarding stories on these issues. Many organisations also actively sought media coverage. This regular contact with the media provides an opportunity for those involved in mental health to support appropriate reporting of suicide and mental illness, which may in turn increase public understanding of these issues.

The Mindframe website and accompanying print resources,have been designed to assist people to effectively communicate with the media about suicide and mental illness.

Things to remember when talking to the media about suicide:

  • Consider the potential impact of the story and whether you should be involved.
  • Provide expert comment or advice where possible.
  • Provide the media with helpline contacts and information about crisis support services, treatment and support options: A guide for media about the correct help-seeking information for inclusion in news stories is available here.
  • Communicate the need to avoid description of the method and location of suicide.
  • Check your language does not glamourise suicide or present it as normal or an option for dealing with problems.
  • Help the journalist with context about suicide by providing general information about suicide and its relationship to mental illness and other risk factors.
  • Exercise caution when providing access to people who have been bereaved by suicide. 
  • Promote the Mindframe for media professionals resources to journalists.
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