Why we need to write more about suicide

June 14, 2018

We need to write more about suicide. If that sounds unconventional, it is.

Newsrooms have traditionally dealt with suicide in one of two ways. They either blow them out of proportion, focusing on gory details, or they ignore them altogether.

Last week’s suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain coupled with news of the 30 percent rise in suicides since 1999 have inspired many on social media with personal connections to suicide to break their silence. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are full of soulful accounts of family members who died of suicide. Others are weighing in with their personal testimonies of near-suicide and what powered them not to go ahead.

“It seemed like time to join the conversation,” wrote Tustin Amole on Facebook of her mother’s death 16 years ago. “We can’t save the ones who are already gone, but maybe we can save the ones who might be next.”

Journalists can do a lot of good if they help tell these stories, too. “Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help,” the World Health Organization guidelines say. We need to do more than run a box at the end of the story with an 800-number for a suicide prevention hotline.

RELATED: Coverage of Kate Spade’s death reveals need for media diversity

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Many news organizations have a policy to not report suicides of everyday people in deference to family members who are ashamed. Death notices rarely list suicide as the cause, so the numbers slip under the radar.

But last week’s alarming report by the Center for Disease Control shows that the suicide rate of 13.7 per 100,000 people age 10 and older was up 28 percent from 1999 to 2016.

Suicide is now being labelled a “central threat to public health,” killing 45,000 Americans each year. That’s twice the number of homicides and the 10th leading causes of all deaths in the United States.

“We have a serious, national problem in terms of adequate recognition of psychiatric illnesses and their treatment,” psychiatrist John Mann of Columbia University told Business Insider.

Reporters need to be more aggressive in their coverage. They will find plenty to write about in the CDC’s fascinating report. White men are especially vulnerable, as are people who live in rural areas. Nearly three of four people with psychiatric illness who died by suicide were not in treatment. Clearly, there is not enough care for people who really need it. That’s a really critical story.

Guns were used in more than half of the cases. That’s an important story, too. Certainly, there are interventions that can be found to reduce this alarming number.

When we ignore stories about a public health crisis, we allow it to fester.

“Maybe it’s time to start thinking about how the media can help,” says David S. Fink, a doctoral researcher in epidemiology for Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Fink conducted a content analysis of Robin Williams’s 2014 death and found a 10 percent rise in the number of suicides in the six months that followed. His theory is that vulnerable people related to Williams, and the comedian’s death gave them a tacit approval to do the same.

But, what if the flip side were true and stories of resilience could inspire others to choose another path? Essays last week by Andrew Solomon in The New Yorker and Kirsten Powers in USA Today were powerful personal testimonies showing how writing responsibly can go a long way in reducing the toxic power of stigma. Oprah has talked about her suicidal thoughts. So has swimmer Michael Phelps and actress Drew Barrymore and others.

BuzzFeed’s video of Kevin Hines describing how he survived a jump from the Golden Gate bridge has gotten over 6.6 million views since it first aired in 2015.

“The millisecond my hand left rail, I felt instant regret,” Hines says, looking into the camera. “I thought to myself, ‘No one will know I didn’t want to die.’” Then he talked about building a network of support, so he wouldn’t have to fight his urges alone. “It’s okay to not be okay,” he said. No reporter, no matter how skilled, can top the power of that kind of first-person account.

Before he turned his research to how the media handled the Williams suicide, Fink interviewed soldiers in the aftermath of a suicide. He found that most US soldiers avoided seeking treatment because they were too ashamed to admit that they were feeling lonely and hopeless. The stigma of having mental illness was so powerful that they literally would rather die than seek help.

It’s unsettling to ask others if they are feeling suicidal, Fink concedes. We’re afraid that merely asking a might be planting a dangerous idea. But mental health counselors now say we should take time to ask and to listen and to offer help if it’s needed. It’s better to get people to talk about their feelings than let them suffer silently.  

Newsrooms can take a cue from this and rethink their policies. By not writing about suicide, we are missing some important stories.

What about the injustice of mental health research? Suicide kills roughly six times the number of people who die in the United States of HIV/AIDS.  But researchers for those diseases get 29 times the amount of federal funds that suicide and suicide prevention researchers receive. As Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist and columnist noted earlier this week in The New York Times, the federal government spends more to study diet supplements than it does for suicide and suicide prevention.

Journalists have a history of being slow on the draw in the battle for public health.  Stories on cancer were once considered impolite and unsuitable for publication.

RELATED: Some of the best opioid coverage is not where you’d expect

The Times didn’t run its first front-page story about HIV/AIDS until 1983, two years after the first reports of deaths from this mysterious disease. In the years that followed, families would talk about the shame that kind of silence invited. “It took me a while to realise it was a great story of triumph, and how central activism was,” said David France, whose book How to Survive a Plague chronicled the history of AIDS.  France’s book details how activists forced politicians to take the epidemic seriously. They did so by telling their stories over and over again to anyone who would listen.

Those looking to reduce the number of suicides would do well to borrow a page from this book. Here’s what we can do to make this kind of reporting more meaningful:

  1. Do what you can to bring the dead person’s voice to the story. Find a letter or an email or a Facebook post that can show the kind of person he or she was. Many writers did this especially well in Bourdain’s appreciations. They underscored the important point that people who kill themselves are a whole lot more than their mental illness or the way that they died.
  2. Ask mental health professionals about the signs and symptoms of someone contemplating suicide.
  3. Let your readers know where they can get help.
  4. Tell stories of resilience, people who thought about killing themselves but didn’t.
  5. If you want to write about a real scandal, write about the lack of mental health resources in your area.
Meg Kissinger is the Joan Konner Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She teaches an investigative reporting class on the mental health system. Kissinger won the George Polk Award for her coverage of Milwaukee’s troubled behavioral health system and a Robert F. Kennedy National Journalism Award for her examination of the nation’s imminent danger standard.