Apply a public health frame to report responsibly and effectively on firearm suicide


Photo courtesy of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

988 suicide and crisis lifeline
Photo courtesy of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Suicide has long been a tricky topic to cover. Sensationalized and poor coverage of suicide raises the risk of a contagion effect — other people being inspired to take their lives. Studies have found that copycat suicides rise following coverage of a single suicide incident, especially involving a celebrity. 

But the problem, especially how it is tied to firearms, needs to be covered. When done carefully and thoughtfully, good journalism can dispel myths, help improve public awareness and understanding of the complexities of suicide and even encourage people to seek help. 

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that suicide is a public health problem, which means these deaths are preventable. Reporting on firearm suicide in particular offers a chance to provide context around the complexities of suicide and the issue of irresponsible firearm ownership. 

Why it matters

Firearm suicides represent more than half of overall gun deaths every year in the U.S. And that ratio can be worse in certain areas — states with higher rates of firearm ownership in the home have higher rates of suicide overall compared to states with lower firearm ownership rates, according to the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The risk of suicide is three times higher in a home with a firearm. Firearm suicide is by far the most lethal method someone can use to take their own life, with a mortality rate of about 90%.

The odds of surviving an attempt not involving a firearm are much higher. This is a key point because seven of 10 suicide survivors who receive care post-attempt will never attempt again, despite the widespread myth that someone who is suicidal cannot be helped. 

An effective suicide prevention method is the safe storage of firearms, which means storing guns unloaded, locked up and separate from ammunition. 

Older white men continue to be at an elevated risk of attempting suicide. But in recent years, other groups of people have started to die at alarming rates. The suicide rate for youths ages 10-24 has been increasing faster than any other age group in the last 10 years, according to a 2022 report from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that suicide is a leading cause of death among American teenagers. While men tend to use firearms to attempt suicide the most, a 2022 study showed that women have increasingly been using guns to take their lives. 

Best practices 

Here are some best reporting practices to keep in mind when covering suicide. They might not all be relevant for every story, but they’re important to keep in mind: 

  • Report on suicide as a public health issue by highlighting prevention efforts, providing accurate facts and data, confronting myths and sharing stories from people who have survived and recovered. Find examples of solutions when they’re relevant. 
  • Specifically for firearms, highlight safe storage practices, such as using a gun lock and safe and storing the ammo separate from the firearm. Safe storage is a key part of suicide prevention given just how lethal a firearm is in a suicide attempt. 
  • Include resources in stories, such as local prevention groups and hotline numbers, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line
  • Avoid using words and phrases that further stigmatize suicides or risks contagion. For example, use “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide.” This is a public health issue, not a crime. Don’t refer to a suicide attempt as “successful” or “unsuccessful.” 
  • Don’t include explicit descriptions of method, such as giving specific details on how exactly the person took their life or location of the death. It is enough to say that the person died of a self-inflicted firearm wound.
  • Describe the warning signs of suicide ideation. And avoid characterizing the suicide as without any warning; there are usually signs that someone is struggling, though many people don’t spot the signs. 

Guides for reporters 

Many suicide prevention organizations have compiled recommendations, guidelines and best practices for how to responsibly report about suicide

  • The Suicide Reporting ToolKit provides a three-step model for approaching a story about suicide and sorting out the ethics of reporting on an act of suicide. The model provides examples of suicide narratives, a set of ethical rules emphasizing how not to sensationalize or stigmatize suicide, and a standard of moderation for minimizing harm. 
  • The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide is a collaboration between leading experts in suicide prevention and several international suicide prevention and public health organizations, schools of journalism, media organizations and more. The recommendations are based on more than 50 international studies on suicide contagion.
  • The CDC offers a list of helpful, general facts about suicide and recommendations for reporters on covering suicide
  • The 988 Suicide and Crisis Line also provides media resources and best practices. 
  • The American Association of Suicidology offers a guide for newsrooms and frames many of their recommendations as a way for the news media to be a partner in prevention efforts. 

If you or someone you know is struggling, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line offer help and resources.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Kaitlin Washburn

Kaitlin Washburn is AHCJ’s health beat leader on firearm violence and trauma and a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.