Building Community Understanding of
Suicide and Suicide Prevention : the
role of media and communications
Director, Hunter Institute of Mental Health
Conjoint Fellow, School of Medicine and Public Health,
University of Newcastle
Hunter Institute of Mental Health
• Programs related mental health promotion and suicide
prevention with children & young people;
• Programs for families and carers;
• Programs to build the capacity of a range of professions – e.g
Nurses, emergency services, workplaces;
• Programs related to communication – e.g:
– Mindframe National Media Initiative
– Conversations Matter.
The Mindframe National Media Initiative aims to influence media
representation of issues related to mental illness and suicide,
encouraging responsible, accurate and sensitive portrayals by working
with the news and entertainment media and a range of other sectors.
Mindframe National Media Initiative
AIM: to improve media portrayals of suicide and mental illness.
SECTORS: media professionals and media organisations, journalism
and public relations educators, the mental health and suicide
prevention sectors, police, courts, and stage and screen.
• Evidence-based and sector appropriate print and online
• Professional development and sector engagement;
• Changes to policies, procedures and codes of practice;
• National Leadership.
Talking about suicide – what is all the
Some assumptions upfront:
• Given suicide is a preventable cause of death which is
important to communities, saying NOTHING about how to
prevent it makes no sense.
• If you are worried that someone may be at risk of suicide,
saying NOTHING makes no sense.
• If you know someone who has experienced a loss, saying
NOTHING makes no sense.
• What do we say?
• How do we say it?
• Where should we say it?
• Who should say it?
• What is the role of the media?
Lenses to be considered
• Why? = Focus of discussion
– Prevention, Intervention or Postvention;
• How? = Format of discussion
– One-on-one, small group, wide-scale (e.g. media);
• Where? = Setting
– School, Workplace, Families, Community, Online, Media;
• Who? = Target groups to be considered
– Carers, GLBTI, Young People, Older People, Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander People, CALD Communities, People with a mental illness,
People Living in Rural and Remote Areas, Men, People Bereaved by
Forgetting all of our national diversity…
4 broad groups for communication:
1. Not affected and not interested;
2. Some level of interest or engagement;
3. Vulnerable, at risk; **
Let’s look at some
myths and facts
General & media
Suicide is different?
• We need to ensure as a community we are not “too afraid” to
talk about suicide, while respecting and understanding the risks
in certain settings and groups.
• The risk associated with the “discussion” seems to be related to:
– The focus of the information (about death, about how to cope with
a death, about the broader issue);
– The status of the individual receiving the information
(uninterested, vulnerable, bereaved);
– The format they receive the information (face-to-face, media);
– The place they receive the information.
MYTH: Reducing stigma associated
with suicide is straight forward
Stigma and suicide?
• Many agree that there is a stigma associated with suicide.
However, the approach to reducing stigma associated with
suicide MUST be different;
• Need to reduce “ignorance” without reducing the “fear”;
• That is, we need to address the myths and misconceptions
without inadvertedly presenting suicide as something that
should be feared less.
FACT: There is confusion about what
we mean by “talking about” suicide
Talking about suicide
• Often confusion about what is meant by “discussing” or “talking
about” suicide, and confusion about the evidence;
– One-on-one conversations;
– Group presentations;
– Media reporting about suicide deaths;
– Media reporting about the issue of suicide.
What we know and don’t know
• Talking to someone, one-on-one, directly about suicide will not
increase their suicide risk (although the empirical evidence is weak);
• Media reporting of suicide deaths has been associated with
increased risk for those who are vulnerable to suicide;
We don’t know:
• Whether group presentation about suicide will increase or decrease
suicide risk (e.g. evidence from schools);
• Whether more general media reporting about suicide (or awareness
campaigns) will increase or decrease risk.
MYTH: We have evidence to support
community discussion of suicide
Evidence review – general findings
• There is very little research evidence to either support or refute a
number of common assertions when talking about suicide;
• While there is broad support amongst experts in the field that
discussing suicide does not increase risk, there appears to be no
scientific evidence that discussing suicide has either a positive or
negative impact on actual suicidal behaviour or help seeking;
• Emotional discomfort and sense of self-efficacy have been
identified in the literature as obstacles to discussing suicide in
clinical and educational settings;
• Evidence from specific settings (e.g. schools) is mixed with variable
outcomes depending on focus, size of group etc;
• There is some research evidence demonstrating that people do
want to discuss suicide despite being difficult.
• Review of research evidence
• Review and analysis of existing
resources and approaches
Three review panels (experts, target groups, settings) review a series of ‘principles’
to guide prevention-focused, intervention focused, and postvention focused
• New name and branding for the resources;
• Community resources for discussing suicide;
• Professional resources to support community discussion of suicide.
• Service providers and key informants
across 4 settings
• Consultations with community
MYTH: The evidence about media
reporting of suicide is weak
• Over 100 studies have looked at media reporting of suicide and
its impact on suicidal behaviour;
• 85% of studies have shown an association between media
reporting and increases in suicidal behaviour following;
• The risk of copycat behaviour is increased where the story is
prominent, is about a celebrity, details method and/or location
and where is glorifies the death in some way;
• Whilst healthy members of the community are unlikely to be
affected, people in despair are often unable to find alternative
solutions to their problems;
• People may be influenced by the report, particularly when they
identify with the person in the report.
The evidence: suicide
• While talking about suicide will not generally increase risk,
media is not a conversation, it is one way communication;
• Messages in editorial are not “market tested”. That is, we have
no way of monitoring how the story is being interpreted by
people sitting in their own homes;
• Vulnerable people may take away different messages than those
that were intended;
• Raising awareness on its own (e.g. increasing reporting) is not
enough to change behaviours;
• Not all media are the same – they don’t all have the capacity to
cover the issues well.
Media – challenges
FACT: We don’t know much about the
potential benefits of media
reporting about the broader issue of
• While the media has a role to play in raising awareness of suicide as a
public health issue, there is generally a lack of evidence supporting any
positive benefits of discussing suicide in the media.
• That doesn’t mean media can’t be used as a tool for good.
• Single studies suggest that:
– Personal stories about someone who has managed suicidal risk as
– Focussing on the impact suicide could be protective;
• Expert opinion suggests that:
– Adding help-seeking information can be helpful;
– Adding information about risk factors and warning signs can be helpful.
The evidence: suicide
FACT: People bereaved by suicide
want more media reporting of
MYTH: People bereaved by suicide
want more media reporting of
Suicide Bereavement and the Media Study
• People bereaved by suicide NOTICE stories about suicide and they
have an emotional response to them;
• Stories can be seen as having either a positive or negative impact
depending on their focus;
• People were usually motivated to participate in a story out of a
sense of altruism/ advocacy role;
• Timing of the interview was identified as a key issue. Media
interviews around the time of a death were seen as unhelpful by all
• Some people bereaved by suicide may use media as a platform to
deal with their grief when there may be more effective strategies.
The Media Monitoring Project
• Australian newspaper, television
and radio items on suicide
retrieved over two 12-month
periods - 2000/01 and 2006/07
• Almost a two-fold increase in
reporting: 4,813 items retrieved in
2000/01 and 8,363 in 2006/07
0-9 10.-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60-69 70-79 80-89 90-100
Distribution of total quality scores for suicide
(57.1% in 2000/01 – 75% in 2006/07 - sig)
FACT: We don’t know whether social
media has the same or different
impacts to media reporting
It is likely that social media is working across domains:
– One-on-one conversations (with or without onlookers);
– Large group communication about suicide deaths and the
issues broadly (driven by the sector and individuals);
– Attempts at social marketing using social media are not
evaluated and rarely driven by suicide prevention;
– There are many opportunities for connection and engagement,
but little is known about the risks;
– Emerging evidence is mixed (e.g. moderated v non-moderated
In suicide prevention we need to be confident to
implement the things we know…. And humble
about what we don’t know.