Reporters need to think carefully about the language they use when reporting on suicide, a panel of experts urged during Health Journalism 2014 in Denver. The stakes are high for readers or viewers who may be at risk for taking their own lives and for families who have lost a member, panelists said.
Reporters don’t do a bad job covering suicide, but their word choices can be subtly misleading, said Marian Betz, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency physician and suicide researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Suicide is not inevitable,” she said, nor is it “inexplicable.” She implored journalists to avoid using both words because 90 percent of people who die by suicide have psychiatric disorders that could have been treated. Continue reading
Jules Rosen, M.D., a certified geriatric psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health, the largest provider of psychiatric services in western Colorado, recently answered some important questions about senior suicide.
What are the most common risk factors for suicide in older adults?
The biggest one is major depression.
Major depression [in older adults] is difficult to recognize and diagnose, especially in the primary care setting where most diagnosis is going to be done. That’s because older people don’t come in with the classic symptoms [of major depression], related to things like schizophrenia or substance abuse disorder, which are fairly easy to recognize. They come in with somatic and functional complaints. They say: “I’m sick. I’m tired all the time. I’m not enjoying things I used to.”
So many times I hear people say “I feel this way because I’m old” and it’s not that they are old, it’s that they are depressed.
So, how do potentially suicidal seniors get the “right” diagnosis?
To get an appropriate diagnosis, patients need a medical work-up – to see how their thyroid is doing, how their electrolytes are, what their vitamin D level looks like, and so on – but they need a psychological work-up, too, to find out why they are “sick” or “tired” of “not enjoying things.” Continue reading
Writing for ABC News, Alan Farnham seeks to explain the jump in suicide rates in the rural American West, particularly in Intermountain states such as Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Historically the suicide rate in rural states has been higher than in urban ones. According to the most recent national data available, Alaska has the highest rate, at 24.6 suicides per 100,000 people. Next comes Wyoming (23.3), followed by New Mexico (21.1), Montana (21.0) and Nevada (20.2). Idaho ranks 6th, at 16.5. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans aged 15-34. Only accidents rank higher.
Farnham focuses on the Gem State, where suicide rates are rising alongside unemployment and related economic hardship. In addition to economic factors, including cuts to Medicaid funding, and a regional lack of resources for the initial diagnosis of mental illness, local experts point to demographic and cultural factors.
Kim Kane, executive director of Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Action Network in Idaho says other factors explain the high rate of suicide in western mountain states. One is the greater prevalence of guns: In 2010, 63 percent of Idaho suicides involved a firearm, compared with the national average of 50 percent.
She and Garrett also say the West’s pride in rugged individualism can prevent people from seeking help. Their feeling, says Kane, is that they ought to be able to pull themselves up by their mental bootstraps. Idaho is the only state not to have a suicide-prevention hotline.
For the paper’s series on military families, Dallas Morning News reporter Dave Tarrant has spent four months investigating what he calls the “relentless cycle of crisis and stress” that affects soldiers’ loved ones. The broad series touches on everything from the Fort Hood suicides to the Army’s preventative measures to Tarrant’s latest, “Wife faces life-or-death decision for her war-injured husband.”
Most of the content is behind the Morning News paywall, but there’s enough on the landing pages to, at the very least, help you understand where Tarrant’s investigation has taken him and just how wide-ranging the health effects of prolonged war can become.
Asserting that safe media reporting is one of the best ways to prevent suicide, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently released recommendations for reporting on suicide.
The press release says the guidance was “developed by a group of suicide prevention experts, researchers and journalists and are based on more than 50 research studies.” It’s worth noting, however, that while the website lists a number of organizations that collaborated to develop the recommendations, none of those listed are journalism organizations. (August 2014 update: There are now some journalists and journalism organizations listed.)
Among its suggestions:
- Avoid sensational headlines and prominent placement
- Don’t use photos of grieving friends or family, memorials or funerals
- Don’t describe a suicide as inexplicable
- Don’t disclose the contents of suicide notes
- Avoid misinformation and offer hope
For some perspective from journalists about reporting on suicide, we recommend “Reporting Suicide and Finding a Balance,” by Meg Spratt of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. The Dart Center has a collection of resources on the topic.
The “Minimize Harm” section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics doesn’t specifically address suicide but does point out the need to show compassion and sensitivity, as well as realizing gathering and reporting the news can cause harm or discomfort.
The Radio Television Digital News Association has guidelines for reporting on suicide, from the American Association of Suicidology. The guidelines include minimizing reporting specific details and avoiding reporting simplistic reasons for suicide. It cautions against making suicide appear glamorous to someone who might be considering suicide and reporting on it in a straightforward manner.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Phil Nesbitt wrote an article for the American Press Institute about the ethical debates surrounding the publication of people jumping from the World Trade Center as well as an incident in Pennsylvania in which a state official committed suicide at a press conference.
Nesbitt reports that editors decide whether or not to publish photos on a case-by-case basis, often depending on the circumstances:
A picture of someone leaping from a high-rise fire would not necessarily merit publication. But someone jumping or falling from the World Trade Center tower as a direct result of the greatest terrorist attack on our soil, for most editors, would.
(Thanks to Charles Bingham and Gary Schwitzer for suggesting resources.)
Writing on the NPR health blog, Whitney Blair Wyckoff writes that while American soldiers who commit suicide receive full military honors, their families don’t receive a letter of condolence from the White House. It’s a substantial omission because, as Wyckoff notes, “the number of soldiers who committed suicide in the U.S. military rivaled those who were killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan this year.”
Suicide prevention and mental health advocates are circulating petitions to reverse the policy, which is gaining media attention at a time when the military’s attempting to destigmatize mental illness. The administration’s only reply was an e-mail from the Department of Defense stating that “Under the current program, the Secretary of Defense does not send condolence letters to next-of-kin of members who commit suicide.”