By Wendy Burchill and Rena Fitzgerald
Word choice is the most powerful tool used in human communication.
The words we choose directly orchestrate and influence the feelings of the people hearing or reading them. Why does this matter so much today? We live in an information age, where the ability to access media in all formats is much easier than a decade ago. Grade-school children now have the same access to information and share it as easily as world leaders. Good news, bad news, sensational stories, photos and videos, positive and negative words — all influence our view of the world and the value of life.
The thing is, words matter. And words especially matter when talking about and reporting on suicide.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month and media and online coverage of suicide must follow best-practice guidelines to reduce stigma and decrease contagion. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy, however, the language used to report suicide can influence the behavior of those reading it, especially those already at risk. The risk of additional suicides in the community increases when the reporting uses words that contribute to stigma, explicitly describes the suicide method, and uses dramatic or graphic headlines and images. Reducing stigma with responsible word choice increases the likelihood that someone at risk will seek help, especially when resources are provided. This should be the goal of responsible suicide reporting.
Over the past 20 years, new forms of communication have developed and readers are more involved in the story than ever before. This wider reach creates more responsibility for those discussing suicide on social media. Social media users, message boards, bloggers and citizen journalists need to be aware that online reports and photos go viral and often receive unfiltered comments requiring extra diligence in following the guidelines. In addition, social media sites often become memorials to the deceased and must be monitored for hurtful and damaging comments, as well as statements from others that are considering suicide.
Some simple suggestions on how to change your language about suicide include:
- Don’t use phrases like “commit suicide” or “successful attempt.” These phrases perpetuate suicide’s stigma and moral judgment. Preferred terms are “ended life” or “died by suicide.” Suicide is not a crime.
- Avoid sharing suicide methods and never publish contents of a suicide note.
- Don’t simplify suicide. Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. Reducing the attempt or loss to a single cause fails to educate the public about the many warning signs and risk factors that can signal an attempt.
- Don’t glorify suicide. Portraying suicide as honorable or romantic can influence vulnerable individuals to view suicide as a viable option.
- Avoid portraying suicide as an option. Suicide is not a rational backup plan or coping behavior.
- Carefully investigate most recent suicide data and use non-sensational words like “rise” or “higher.”
- Include the warning signs and what to do if someone is in a crisis. Most people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs and if recognized, a life may be saved.
- Recognize that social media has many “reporters” and stories travel quickly and without editing. An example: A neighborhood social media page copies and pastes an alert from a police scanner containing language such as “gunshots heard in the home” should not be shared widely for the protection of family and individual privacy.
- Always include current local and national resources where readers can find treatment and help.
- Promote the idea that depression, anxiety, and suicidal crises are livable and survived by many who get help. Include stories of hope and recovery.
We know that sensational reports about suicide — whether in print, online or any other forms of media — lead to additional suicidal behaviors. These time-limited increases in suicides are not simply suicides that would have happened anyway. If this were the case, they would be followed by a decrease in suicide rates. These are additional suicides that would not have occurred if the appropriate media reporting had taken place. In a sense, we are all reporters since we live in the modern age of social media. We need to exercise caution and be responsible when talking about suicide, balancing the public’s “right to know” against the risk of causing harm. Preventing suicide is everyone’s business.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, contact the 24-hour Care Crisis Line at 800-584-3578, 425-258-4357 or connect to Crisis Chat at www.imhurting.org.
Wendy Burchill is a healthy community specialist focused on injury and suicide prevention with the Snohomish Health District. Rena Fitzgerald is a crisis services program manager with Volunteers of America. For more information, go to www.snohd.org/SuicidePrevention.