Samaritans has been working in the area of media guidelines for almost thirty years to encourage sensitive and safe discussion of suicide in the public domain.
Our Media Guidelines are based on decades of research which shows that certain types of coverage of suicide and self-harm can lead to increases in suicide rates, such as explicitly describing a method or sensational and excessive reporting. In contrast, positive coverage of someone coming through a suicidal crisis can encourage people to seek help and see that there is hope.
- The aim of our media guidelines is to support safe public discussion of suicide, not to shut down conversations about it.
- Tackling the stigma around talking about suicide is important and media can help to build public understanding of the issue.
- The topic of suicide should never be brushed under the carpet: preventing discussion can increase stigma and create barriers for those who may need to speak out and get help.
However, talking about suicide responsibly is important. When media coverage speculates about the reasons why someone took their own life, it can often oversimplify the issues behind someone’s death. This can carry significant risk to others as it can increase the likelihood that people who are already vulnerable might over-identify with this person and then engage in suicidal behaviour themselves. This is often referred to as “suicide contagion”.
We can and should still recognise that some people are at higher risk of suicide than others though.
We know that:
- suicide is preventable
- highlighting risk in specific communities safely and responsibly can raise awareness and encourage life-saving conversations
- highlighting risk can focus resource and attention on those who need it and who may otherwise be overlooked .
The evidence suggests that the important thing is to avoid suggesting (directly or indirectly) that suicide is inevitable if you belong to a particular community. Coverage should not imply that the sole risk factor is a person's identity within the group, but rather that because of multiple factors that people within the group may have in common, for example social isolation, inequality, discrimination, then they are more likely to experience increased risk factors for suicide.
This means that if you want to highlight risk in specific communities then this needs to be done in a balanced and informed way, avoiding sensationalising it.
For example, we know that risk of self-harm and suicide is higher among LGBTQ+ communities than heterosexual or cisgender people. This is not because being LGBTQ+ in itself increases your risk, but because many LGBTQ+ people experience additional stressors including discrimination and barriers to seeking help, which can increase their suicide risk.
There are multiple factors that can increase someone’s risk of suicide, and these can overlap and intersect. For example, we know that suicide rates are highest among White and Mixed ethnicity groups, but the data shows a more complex picture when you consider other characteristics alongside ethnicity. Female suicide rates are higher amongst the Mixed ethnicity group than others, whereas in males, White and Mixed ethnicity groups have similar rates. The intersectionality between the different experiences of ethnicity and gender may increase the risk (or protective) factors associated with suicide.
Recognising the multiple factors which increase risk, and which groups of people may face these, can help us target suicide prevention initiatives. Talking about communities who are at higher risk of suicide, and using data and evidence that helps us to understand this risk should be used responsibly to open the conversation.
Samaritans supports open discussion of these issues. Our Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide is a best-practice guide for covering the topic of suicide safely. This advice is based on findings from global studies into the effects of media portrayals of suicide.