Many people are discussing and grieving fashion designer Kate Spade’s death, apparently by suicide. And in these moments, it becomes essential to discussing suicide as safely as possible.
Whether you knew the person who lost their life personally or as a public figure, whether you’re speaking in private, public, or as a member of the press, the way you discuss suicide can affect those around you. By following a few guidelines outlined by suicide prevention specialists and public health practitioners, you can minimize some risks.
What is suicide contagion?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates among adolescents and young adults have increased sharply in recent decades. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people 10 to 24, and lesbian, gay, and bi-sexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. In a national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt in their lifetime and 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
Adolescents and young adults who die by suicide are less likely to be clinically depressed or to have certain other mental disorders that are important risk factors for suicide among persons in all age groups, says the CDC. This reality has motivated research on other preventable risk factors for suicide among young people.
“One risk factor that has emerged from this research is suicide ‘contagion,’ a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide,” the CDC explains. “Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas. In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides. The effect of contagion appears to be strongest among adolescents, and several well publicized ‘clusters’ among young persons have occurred.”
How to talk about suicide
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there are three primary tips to follow when discussing suicide with peers or on social media:
Colloquial as the phrase “committed suicide” has become, it’s inappropriate because it’s largely linked to the Catholic doctrine that suicide is a mortal sin. So by saying someone “committed suicide,” you can unintentionally imply that this person committed a kind of crime.
Excluding graphic details of the way someone took their life is advised because doing so can glamorize the act, and become triggering for those who are living with depression or suicidal ideation. The same principle applies to describing suicide notes, or locations of death, which can be especially damaging when the person who has taken their life is famous, as the general public’s fixation with learning all the details can easily make the tragic, deeply complex act seem more like a television drama.
How to write about suicide as a reporter and on social media
The imperative to discuss suicide safely is particularly important for journalists, as media descriptions feed impressions of a public figure’s death. According to ReportingOnSuicide.org, “more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage.”
– Leah Fessler
Image source – Flickr.com