Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade.  Chester Bennington. Chris Cornell. Robin Williams.

Collectively, we gasped. Knitted our eyebrows in confusion. Shook our heads in disbelief. Perhaps allowed tears to fall. Suicide leaves most feeling confused and lost, especially when it touches those who are larger than life with seemingly so much to live for. And when it does, the media coverage knows no end. For days, weeks, even months news outlets are plastered with sensationalized headlines.

“Kate Spade suicide note hinted at looming divorce”  

“Asia Argento on Anthony Bourdain: ‘He cheated on me too’”

“Disturbing Details about Chester Bennington’s Suicide”

“Grim Details of Robin Williams’ death release by investigators.”

The words grab you. Pull you in. Make you want to click and read more. And that, of course, is exactly what they are designed to do. But public health officials are concerned these headlines are doing damage. Over fifty studies have shown reporting on suicide to be linked with increased attempt and completion rates in vulnerable populations (Reporting On Suicide, 2018). For example, a study by Fink, Santaella-Tenorio, and Keyes (2018) found a 9.85% increase in suicide, or 1,841 more deaths, in the months following the death of beloved actor Robin Williams.

In addition to news media, the entertainment industry has frequently drawn attention to the issue of suicide — though, as clinical experts point out, not in a good way. ‘13 Reasons Why’, a Netflix series on a teen girl’s suicide sparked concern from professionals and parents alike. The series was criticized for glamorizing suicide and featured a lengthy and graphic scene showing the death of the main character. It was the most tweeted about show of 2017 and was heavily viewed by adolescents. After it aired, Google searches for “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” rose by 26% and 9% respectively (Fadus, 2018).

Outside of the media industries, there is also the influence of social media and privately hosted webpages to contend with. Pro-suicide sites and chat boards are visited online more often than suicide crisis support. One pro-suicide site reports it organized information on the pros and cons, methods, and considerations for suicide because “I was tired of all these sites that try to save my life.” On social media, there are pro suicide pages, hashtags and groups. Posts of self-harm wounds, quotes of hopelessness and pictures of darkness and death abound.

With all this glorification and opportunism going on, how can one individual make a worthwhile impact?

The good news is, there’s plenty each one of us can do.

The most important thing to realize is that it is okay to talk about suicide. A large part of what feeds media attention on the subject is that it’s a taboo topic. If we start talking about suicide with each other, with our families, and with our communities it becomes less mysterious and the voyeuristic draw begins to weaken. It’s a simple way to start turning the tide.  

Reducing the stigma of mental health and suicide begins by normalizing and externalizing the experiences. 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in their lifetime (NAMI, 2017). These experiences are far more common than we believe. Further, suicidal thoughts are a common and expected part of anxiety and depression as well as during times of high stress, grief, or post-trauma. However, since there is a social stigma against discussing mental illness, and even more so in expressing suicidal ideations, individuals are often embarrassed or ashamed to admit they are experiencing these thoughts. It may seem counter intuitive, but if we normalize the experience of suicide, it allows an open dialogue and removes barriers to getting help.

Another important step is education.

Myths and misconceptions abound and drive avoidance of the topic and engender feelings of fear, helplessness and panic. But what if you knew that suicidal thoughts are normal? That they exist on a spectrum? That there are warning signs? That it’s okay to talk about it openly? That it’s okay to be confused of what to do and reach out for help sooner rather than later? Public health initiatives that teach emotional hygiene and ways to support loved ones in crisis should be as common as My Plate and the Food Pyramid for nutrition education. Schools, medical providers and public health organizations can all incorporate education on coping skills, emotional literacy, and warning signs of mental health struggles.   

Further, we can call for media accountability in the presentation of suicide by contacting news media and advocating for responsible reporting. ReportingOnSuicide.org has wonderful information that is research backed on how to report on suicide without sensationalizing. This includes limiting the number of times it is covered, avoiding words like “epidemic” and “without warning”, and not including descriptions of methods or suicide notes. Instead, coverage should focus on warning signs, prevention measures, and basic reporting of facts.  

References

Fadus, M. (2018). Preparing for a Sequel: ’13 Reasons Why’and Suicide Contagion. Psychiatric News, March 13, 2018.  Fink DS, Santaella-Tenorio J, Keyes KM (2018) Increase in suicides the months after the death of Robin Williams in the US. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0191405. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191405 NAMI. (2017). Mental Health Facts in America. https://www.nami.org/nami/media/nami-media/infographics/generalmhfacts.pdf

Reporting on Suicide. (2018). http://reportingonsuicide.org/wp-content/themes/ros2015/assets/images/Recommendations-eng.pdf

Myth: Suicide comes without warning.

Truth: Suicide is predictable. Chronic depression, increasing social withdraw and isolation, upsetting life events, terminal illnesses, and verbalizing hopelessness and despair are all signs a person could be headed for a suicide attempt.

Myth: Suicide is a choice.

Truth: Suicide is an emotional response. Whether the suicide happened due to chronic depression or in response to an acute and upsetting event, individuals experiencing suicidal ideations are usually operating from the emotional brain and not the logical brain.

Myth: Teenagers that commit suicide are over reacting.

Truth: Teenagers respond within their level of emotional capacity. Your ability to have perspective comes from possessing life experience and coping ability that teenagers don’t yet have. Take their responses seriously and provide support without minimizing, even if you think it’s petty.

Myth: Suicide is an attention getting strategy.

Truth: Suicide can often be a cry for help but it can also be an act of desperation. In either case it is communicating that a person needs help and support and should not be ignored.

Myth: Talking about suicide makes it more likely someone will act on it.

Truth: Talking about suicide breaks down isolation and dramatically increases the likelihood a person will feel supported and hopeful.