Suicide and the Media
New Zealand Worksop
The purpose of the Hunter
Institute of Mental Health is to
promote mental health and
wellbeing and to prevent mental
ill-health and suicide, through
education and training, health
promotion, research and
The Mindframe National Media
Initiative aims to influence media
representation of issues related
to mental illness and
responsible, accurate and
sensitive portrayals by working
with the news and entertainment
media and a range of other
What are the first things that
spring to mind when I ask you
to think about media
coverage of suicide?
Suicide is a legitimate issue to be covered by the media.
Mindframe does not suggest that media should refrain from
covering this issue - media need to be aware of the potential
impact of covering suicide.
Let’s first take a brief look at
outcomes 10 years on
Summary of outcomes
• One of only two countries where the introduction of guidelines or
strategies have resulted in a change in reporting (media
Monitoring study, Pirkis et al. 2009):
– Both suicide and mental illness items increased in volume, with
approximately a two-and-a-half-fold increase.
– In terms of quality, suicide items increased from 57% to
75%, and mental illness items increased from 75% to 80%.
• The only country that has shown evidence that media are aware of
the resources and use the resources in their practice (Skehan et
al., 2006; Pirkis et al., 2006).
• Uptake in journalism curricula and improvements in student
knowledge and skills (Skehan et al., 2009).
Dissemination has been Australia’s
point of difference internationally
• Funded by Department of Health & Ageing NSPP;
• Guided by national advisory groups (*media,
health, police, universities, entertainment);
• Comprehensive strategy to disseminate evidence
based information to a range of sectors about
media coverage of suicide and mental illness.
Research into practice
Research evidence related to media
reporting and portrayal of suicide
Development of Australian
Evidence based strategies to
enhance program dissemination
Dissemination of Australian guidelines
(integration into policies, professional
development, partnerships, leadership)
Consultation and sector engagement to identify qualities about journalists and the
media environment in Australia
The Mindframe model
AIM: To improve media portrayals of suicide and mental illness.
SECTORS: Collaborative approach with 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.
Mindframe National Media Initiative
(Guided by advisory groups – media, MHSP,
police, universities, stage & screen.
Improved media coverage of suicide and mental illness
Media Monitoring Study 2001, 2007
stories about suicide
and mental illness
SANE Media Centre &
Mindframe – the logic
Mindframe for the
police and courts.
Capacity building model
1. Support organisational development across target groups
through embedding Mindframe information and core principles
into curriculum, policies, codes and organisational plans;
2. Contribute to workforce development across target groups
through relevant direct engagement with sectors;
3. Continue to allocate resources across target groups through the
update, maintenance and dissemination of print and online
Capacity building model (cont.)
4. Support partnerships between each target group and the project
team and build partnerships (where relevant) across target
5. Continue to provide and support leadership for this kind of work
through maintenance of reference and advisory groups, strategic
partnerships with organisations and supporting champions across
6. Monitor and evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the project
Mental Health Context…
• The Hidden Toll: Suicide
in Australia - Report of
the 2010 Senate Inquiry
• Australian of the Year
and GetUp campaign for
increased Mental Health
and Suicide Prevention
• Increased media
comment about issues of
reporting of suicide.
• Independent Inquiry into
Media and Media
• National Convergence
• ACMA review of Privacy
• Review of Media Codes
of practice and editorial
policies (e.g. APC, ABC).
• 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;
• Is the reporting “alerting” or “alarming” people?
Media – challenges
Lets start by exploring some things
Talking about suicide
• Suicide is an important issue of community concern. It is
important that all members of the community are engaged with
• Often confusion about what is meant by “discussing” or “talking
about” suicide, and confusion about the evidence
– One-on-one conversations;
– Large group presentations;
– Media reporting about suicide deaths;
– Media reporting about the issue of suicide.
What we know and don’t
• Talking to someone, one-on-one, directly about suicide will generally
not increase their suicide risk
• Media reporting of suicide deaths has been associated with
increased risk for those who are vulnerable to suicide
We don’t know:
• Whether more general media reporting about suicide (or awareness
campaigns) will increase or decrease risk.
Let’s look at the evidence for media
Target audience for media about suicide
Potentially includes 4 broad groups:
1. Not affected and not interested;
2. Some level of interest;
3. Vulnerable, at risk;
The evidence: negative
• 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
• People may be influenced by the report, particularly when they identify
with the person in the report.
The evidence: positive
• 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
• What evidence is there that a suicide toll will be more
helpful than harmful?
– Evidence related to hyer-reporting & hotspot tolls?
– Impact on people bereaved by suicide?
• What evidence is there that a suicide prevention
campaign would be successful?
– Evidence of effectiveness?
– What are we trying to achieve?
• What evidence is there that “personal stories” will
contribute to a reduction in suicide deaths?
– Let’s explore in more detail
Let’s tackle some topical issues
So what might this mean for the suicide
Consider whether to participate
• Who is the most appropriate organisation/person to make
• Do you have a media policy and who is your authorised media
• Who in your organisation is ‘good media talent’?
• Will this story benefit community understanding and/or
promote help seeking? What might be the impact of saying
• How will you say ‘no’? Will you refer them to someone else or
provide them with general information?
• Be mindful not to sensationalise the issue with
• Need to ‘alert’ not ‘alarm’ the community.
– “Youth suicide epidemic”
• Use your promotional opportunities to dispel
common myths e.g.
– “People who attempt suicide are attention seekers.”
Use appropriate language - suicide
• Limit use of the word ‘suicide’ where possible
• Use language which does not glamorise,
normalise or sensationalise suicide
‘non fatal’ or ‘attempt
on his/her life’
‘took their own life’ or ‘died by
‘cluster of deaths’
‘successful suicide’ or
Avoid description of suicide
• Avoid discussing method and location, discourage use of
• Provide alternatives to specific descriptions e.g.
‘took her own life in a
‘he fell to his death from a
‘used her bed sheet to hang
herself from the ceiling fan’
‘he jumped from the top floor
of the Skyline building on Smith
Place the story in context – suicide
• Provide information about suicide and its relationship to
known risk factors.
• Avoid simplistic explanations that suggest suicide might be the
result of a single factor or event.
• Provide suicide prevention information e.g. warning signs.
• Discuss current trends – do we have a “youth suicide
• Discuss alternative approaches to ‘suicide prevention’ stories –
i.e. do they always have to be about people who have lost
• Provide crisis counselling services, helpline numbers and
websites that are RELEVANT to the story
• Think online with young people
• Think about cultural and geographic issues
• Think about different media and how to integrate these.
Provide help-seeking information
Involvement of people
bereaved by suicide
• Stories of coping or survival may be a good way to deliver
suicide prevention messages;
• If you are coordinating a spokesperson who has personal
experience support them to make an informed decision about
• Duty of care - ensure access to support during and after the
If supporting people with
One way to become clearer about which parts of your story to
1. Write out your story in full;
2. Take out any information you would not want everyone you
have ever met, or will ever meet, to know about you;
3. Take out DETAILED references to self-harm, suicide;
4. Highlight the parts of your story that support your key
message (your talking points).
Some tips for working with the
A tweet rather than feature article!
Developing rapport with
Approaching media for
Responding to media
Responding to media
Questions to ask :
• What is the purpose of our media
• How will we achieve that purpose?
• What do we want to tell the public?
• What resources do we need?
• How will we know if we have been
• Develop a list of what you will and won’t do (as an
organisation and as individuals);
• Be clear about your key message;
• Identify how you want to communicate your key message;
• Check in with the Mindframe issues to consider;
• Identify local media to approach;
• Meet and greet with local journalist.
What is a key message?
• Main point that you want to communicate;
• Able to be captured in a short memorable sentence;
• Compatible with organisation’s position;
• Supported by ‘talking points’;
• Supported by current & accurate information;
• Remember Mindframe issues.
• Key message = seeking help is not a sign of
• Talking point = personal experience of seeking
support or of supporting someone else to seek
What are your talking points?
These are the ‘hooks’ or ‘angles’ that bring your story
to life and make it of interest.
People are interested in things that affect their lives
or those of people they care about; or that they
can relate to.
Target your approach
• Identify the audience you hope to reach;
• Identify the media they access;
• Plan the angle you will emphasise;
• Consider the language you use;
• Identify spokespeople;
• Plan how you will contact the media e.g. face to face,
• Develop a communications plan;
• Create key messages;
• Choose communication tools;
• Cultivate relationships with local media;
• Be consistent, reliable and accurate.
Things I am excited about
• Social media provides an opportunity for social connection that
MAY mitigate risk. Evidence of people linking up with like-minded
people and reporting personal benefits (e.g. #RuralMH);
• People can monitor and intervene in the wellbeing of others;
• If services use the technology they reach a large audience cheaply;
• There is an opportunity to build TRUST in suicide prevention
services and brands by being part of the conversation;
Things I am excited about
• Partnerships with google and facebook to start intervening with
• We can see the sorts of conversations people are having and may
be able to transition them into services online (e.g. reachout);
• Opportunities for social media applications of interventions such as
“postcards” to reduce suicide risk.
Things I am concerned about
• Social media is unregulated and so provides a platform for
transferring potentially harmful information (both intentionally
• There may be unintended recipients of your communication and
it goes internationally (e.g. #suicide);
• I may now have to think about not only how this room will
interpret what I am saying, but potentially people I didn’t know I
was talking to (anyone tweeting?);
• While I am optomistic about some social marketing like
campaigns that have arisen, they are not being driven by the
suicide prevention sector and have not been market-tested or
evaluated to test for unintended consequences.