Do’s and Don’ts for Media Reporting on Suicide

Trigger Warning: This article discusses the public health issue of suicide and guidelines for responsible reporting of suicide in the media, but does not refer to specific methods of suicide or other details related to specific deaths by suicide.

Even though I’m a mental health professional and issues surrounding suicide are an ever-present part of my work, I’m still astounded by how often the topic of suicide comes up in the media. It seems that hardly a week goes by without another story of the tragic suicide of a celebrity or public figure.

From Kurt Cobain to Robin Williams to Chris Cornell, the list of deaths by suicide is ever growing longer. The recent dialogue about the teen suicide depicted in the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has only added further to the global conversation about the public health concerns surrounding suicide.

We know from previous studies that irresponsible coverage of suicide in the media can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. So it’s important to think about how we talk and write about suicide in the media and in other forms of communication.

I was reminded recently of the excellent resources which provide guidelines for the responsible reporting and discussion of suicide in the media. In the guideline document, “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” several useful and concrete guidelines are offered for how to talk about suicide in the media. Most of the material in this article comes from this source. Let’s first review and summarize the list of do’s and don’ts.

1) Don’t use big or sensationalistic headlines with specific details about the method of suicide. Do inform without sensationalizing the suicide and without providing details in the headline.

2) Don’t include photos or videos of the location or method of death, grieving family or friends, funerals. Do use a school or work photo; include suicide hotline numbers or local crisis contacts.

3) Don’t describe suicide as “an epidemic,” “skyrocketing,” or other exaggerated terms. Do use accurate words such as “higher rates” or “rising.”

4) Don’t describe a suicide as “without warning” or “inexplicable.” Do convey that people exhibit warning signs of suicide and include a list of common warning signs and ways to intervene when someone is suicidal (see section below).

5) Don’t say “she left a suicide note saying…” Do say “a note from the deceased was found.”

6) Don’t investigate and report on suicide as though it is a crime. Do report on suicide as a public health issue.

7) Don’t quote police or first responders about the causes of suicide. Do seek advice and information from suicide prevention experts.

8) Don’t refer to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful,” or a “failed attempt.” Avoid the use of “committed suicide,” which is an antiquated reference to when suicidal acts or attempts were punished as crimes. Do say “died by suicide,” “completed” or “killed him/herself.”

In addition, it’s recommended to inform readers about many effective treatment options, recount stories of those who overcame a suicidal crisis and provide other resources for assistance.

In case you need a refresher on some of the common warning signs of suicide, they include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

Displaying more of these signs indicates a greater risk for suicide.

If you know someone who exhibits the warning signs of suicide:

  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Remove accessible firearms, alcohol, drugs, sharp objects or other possible means
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

Also, be familiar with these crisis resource organizations:

You may also want to enroll in a basic suicide prevention training program such as QPR (Question-Persuade-Refer) to increase your skills for responding to someone in crisis. I’ve covered this excellent program in detail in a previous post. Also, if you are blogging about the topic of suicide, here’s another great resource with recommendations specific to bloggers.

It’s important to review these basic recommendations for how to write and talk about suicide regularly for three reasons: 1) So we can all be better equipped to talk about suicide with greater sensitivity and accuracy; 2) To recognize when someone is displaying warning signs of suicide; and 3) To know about ways to assist someone in crisis to get appropriate help and treatment. Finally, it’s critical to share this information widely with others to spread the word so we can all raise our awareness about these life-saving strategies.

Here’s a question: What can you do to help raise awareness about issues surrounding suicide prevention and intervention? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

  • Tillie Bright

    I’ve taken a course in suicide prevention and intervention. It’s made much more effective in dealing with the topic. Great article.

  • Thank you Tillie!

  • I’m a mental health writer. I appreciate these tips.

  • Thank you Debbie! I’ve admired your work.

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