Featured Mental health Research

Why hopeful and responsible reporting of suicide is so important

Man reading the newspaper
Written by Jennifer Palisoc

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Sunnybrook researchers are at the centre of the largest Canadian study investigating the reporting of suicide details and potential impact on suicide deaths.

Dr. Mark Sinyor is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook and lead investigator of the study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

We asked him to provide more context to the study which involved an international team of researchers from Canada, Austria and Australia, who reviewed thousands of print and online media reports about suicide from 13 major publications available in the Toronto media market. Researchers also examined the suicide deaths in Toronto from 2011 to 2014 and found there were more than 6,300 articles on suicide and 947 suicide deaths in the city during that time.

Dr. Sinyor also co-authored the Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide: 2017 Update of the Canadian Psychiatric Association Policy Paper

What did your study find?

What we found is what people have found in many other countries, which is that certain aspects of those articles, things like: reporting about celebrities, talking about suicide methods – particularly in the headline, and also a statement that suicide was inevitable, were all associated with increased suicide rates after they were published.

Read the CMAJ news release to learn more.

How can the public be influenced by reporting?

One of the things that we worry about is that vulnerable readers will read or view news stories about suicide, identify with them and get the wrong message that somehow they should copy the actions described in the news article, when actually what we are hoping is that journalists will communicate the truth, which is that suicidal thoughts are “thinking errors” that if you’re having them, it means you’re not well and that you need to seek help.

What is a thinking error?

We know that in mental disorders, people have thoughts that don’t map well onto reality. So, for example, if someone has an eating disorder they may think, ‘I’m fat’, when they’re very slim. Or, they might have a panic disorder that makes them think they’re having a heart attack, when in fact they’re having a panic attack. And one of the issues is that those thoughts lead to behaviours that may be the wrong course of action.

If someone is having the thought “no one loves me”, “I don’t deserve to be alive”, “I should be dead”, what we do in psychiatry is help people understand that those thoughts mean the person is unwell, that they’re in a crisis right now, that they may be under stress or that they have difficulty coping. The reality is that we have treatments for all of those different things and that that’s the course of action that needs to be taken, not steps to suicide.

What impact can the media potentially have on the public?

The media is very powerful. People read newspapers or, maybe more often now, read online or watch TV. And they get messages, and they act on those messages. If we send a message that suicide is inevitable, unfortunately, a few people will take that very seriously. On the other hand, if we tell people when you have suicidal thoughts it means you’re not well, go get help – more people will get help and they’ll get better. And that’s what we want to have happen.

What is considered responsible reporting?

The media and journalists are really trying to get the stories right. We’re not trying to conduct oversight of them, we don’t want to censor them, we want them to have journalistic freedom. We just want them to know everything that they need to know about how their reporting may influence suicide rates, and that ultimately they have to make their own decision.

The most important thing that the media can do is to explain to readers and viewers that the overwhelming majority of people who think about suicide, don’t die by suicide.

Suicidal thoughts are almost always accompanied by treatable mental disorders, and that if people are having them, they should seek help and that there’s hope.

Recommendations include:

  • Stories of resilience
  • Message of hope; suicide is preventable
  • Education about resources

About the author

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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