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Shaping hope, not despair: WHO to leverage media for suicide prevention

WHO to leverage media for suicide prevention

The guidelines say widely disseminated stories of death by suicide are often followed by more suicides, while stories of overcoming a suicidal crisis can lead to fewer suicides

Recognizing the impact of media on both encouragement of suicides and prevention efforts, the World Health Organization (WHO) has introduced two tools: a resource for media professionals and a policy brief spotlighting the health dimensions of decriminalizing suicide and suicide attempts.

The WHO says evidence shows that vulnerable persons such as those with a history of suicide attempts or thoughts, or those exposed to suicide are at an increased risk of engaging in imitative behaviours following media reports of suicide – particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensational, explicitly describes the method of suicide, makes suicide appear to be normal, or perpetuates widely-held myths about suicide.

The resource offers guidance on how to ensure that reporting on suicide is accurate, responsible, and appropriate.

The fourth edition of preventing suicide guidelines is a resource for media professionals, produced in collaboration with the International Association for Suicide Prevention, summarizes current evidence on the impact of media reporting of suicide, and provides practical guidance for media professionals on how to report on suicide responsibly.

The guidelines say widely disseminated stories of death by suicide are often followed by more suicides in the population, while stories of overcoming a suicidal crisis can lead to fewer suicides. Media professionals are encouraged to focus on presenting stories of people who overcome difficulties following a suicidal crisis.

News stories may teach people about suicide in ways that lead to imitation. News stories in the media aimed at informing the public may change behaviour positively or negatively. 

The same is true for health outcomes, including suicide, as more than 100 research studies worldwide, chiefly conducted in high-income countries, have investigated the link between media reporting and suicide with consistent findings. Systematic reviews of these studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: that media reports about people who die by suicide can lead to subsequent, additional, suicidal acts.

WHO guidelines say repeated coverage and high-impact, high-profile stories are most strongly associated with imitative behaviour.  The effect of a report about a suicide on subsequent suicides is greater when the person described in the story is a celebrity and is held in high regard by the reader or viewer. 

“In effect, such stories can inadvertently function as celebrity endorsements of suicidal behaviour and it is known that celebrity endorsements can have an impact on behaviour of the public,” the study explains. “Specific subgroups in the population (such as young people, persons with mental health conditions, people with a history of suicidal behaviour, minorities, and those bereaved by suicide) are particularly vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviour.”

The risk of imitation is most pronounced when the characteristics of the person who died by suicide and those of the reader or viewer are similar in some way so that the reader or viewer identifies or overidentifies with the featured person on the basis of the details included in the story.

Historically, most suicide-related reporting has focused on the dissemination of stories of death and therefore most research in the area has typically focused on and identified the effects of these reports. 

A variety of media reports in recent years has led to more research into the potential benefits of different kinds of responsible media reporting that could promote suicide prevention – particularly stories of hope and recovery that describe how to manage suicidal crises and cope with adversity. 

A number of studies have shown that media reports about people who experienced difficulties in their lives but who managed to cope constructively with their suicidal thoughts are associated with small reductions in suicidal ideation among vulnerable audiences.

Emerging evidence also suggests that such stories are associated with decreases in suicidal behaviour and increases in help-seeking. The educative media portrayals featuring how to cope with suicidal thoughts, profiling support organizations and resources, and sharing information from those with lived experience, may help reducing the likelihood of people thinking about suicide or acting on such thoughts. This may also increase the likelihood that they will reach out for help if they are struggling with their own crises.

 “Responsible media coverage of suicide is an important tool in our collective suicide prevention efforts. By using this resource, media professionals can help minimize imitative behaviours through accurate, appropriate, and empathetic reporting on suicide, and encourage people to seek vital help,” said Dr Alexandra Fleischmann, scientist at WHO.

The WHO says its updated resource also highlights increasing evidence that reporting focused on survival and resilience can lead to positive imitative behaviours and can contribute to suicide prevention. It also sets out guidance on how to report on stories on recovery and mental and emotional well-being. 

Growing suicide toll

Suicide is a major public health problem. Each year more than 700,000 people take their own life. It is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. Not only is each loss of life tragic in itself, but it also has profound and devastating effects on families and entire communities.

Suicide can be linked to multiple, complex, and intersecting social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors and challenges, including the denial of basic human rights and access to resources as well as stressful life events such as loss of livelihood, work or academic pressures, relationship breakdowns and discrimination, among others.

Reducing the global suicide rate by one third by 2030 is a target of both the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the WHO Global Mental Health Action Plan. Urgent action is needed to meet the 2030 goal, and countries have committed to taking concrete measures in this direction.

“Each death by suicide is a tragedy, and more must be done to strengthen suicide prevention. The resources launched by WHO today provide important guidance on two areas which are critical to suicide prevention efforts: decriminalisation of suicide and suicide attempts and responsible reporting of suicide by the media,” said Dévora Kestel, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use, World Health Organization.

Decriminalizing suicide

Suicide and suicide attempts are criminalized in the laws of at least 23 countries worldwide and suicide attempts continue to be actively punished in some of them. The criminalization of suicide perpetuates an environment that fosters blame towards people who attempt suicide and deters people from seeking timely help due to the fear of legal repercussions and stigma.

Drawing on the experiences of countries that have recently decriminalized suicide and suicide attempts, including Guyana, Pakistan and Singapore, the WHO policy brief on health aspects of the decriminalization of suicide and suicide attempts sets out recommendations for policy-makers, legislators and other decision-makers considering reform in this area.

Key recommendations focus on developing national suicide prevention strategies; budgeting for ‘post-decriminalization’ training for first line responders; establishing rights-oriented community-based mental health services; formulating new mental health related laws and policies that promote quality care and the rights of persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.

“Criminalizing suicide only serves to exacerbate people’s distress. The decriminalisation of suicide and suicide attempts is a critical step that governments can take in their efforts to prevent suicide. WHO is committed to supporting efforts to decriminalise suicide” said Nathalie Drew Bold, WHO Technical Officer.

The policy brief also sets out how decriminalisation saves lives by reducing the stigma and shame associated with suicide and promoting an environment where people feel able to seek help; allowing for improved data collection on suicide and suicide attempts which can better inform appropriate interventions; and by increasing opportunities for awareness-raising and advocacy around suicide prevention.

Also read : 700 000 people die by suicide every year: Lancet