It is almost two months since the world was shocked by the suicides of designer Kate Spade and gourmand Anthony Bourdain. Their deaths highlighted for many just how little we know about what lies below the surface for those in the public eye, whose lives are so often labeled with words like “perfect” and “success”.
With their deaths came a spate of media coverage discussing suicide and the importance of asking for help. And the importance of watching out for, and listening to, those around us who might not be travelling so well.
Not too long ago the media would have used words like “died unexpectedly” and “no suspicious circumstances” to allude to the causes of death for high profile individuals such as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Journalists have generally cooperated with suicide prevention guidelines, recognising that the time had come to stop sensationalising suicide and speak in more sensitive tones about tragedies such as these. Suicide prevention researchers have discussed “contagion” or clustering of suicides after insensitive mass media reporting, and so as a whole the media has acted responsibly with this in mind.
Is Media Coverage Helpful?
Media coverage can be incredibly powerful in terms of dissemination of information to a broad audience. Campaigns such as Australia’s RUOK Day have captured the media’s imagination and created a platform for reminding each of us to check in with each other, especially if we suspect someone is suffering in silence. The media has the power to whip up a groundswell of support, or judgement, depending on how information is reported.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association guidelines are quite clear on how the media should respond to suicide, with advice on who should do the reporting (health reporters, not crime reporters), what should be reported (avoid details around methods used, especially if they are unique or uncommon), and how it should be reported (avoid sensationalism, include information on how to seek help). In Australia, the Mindframe website provides comprehensive advice and tools for media professionals, including an app to guide journalists in the responsible coverage of suicide and mental health issues.
Encouraging Open Dialogue
The tone of media reporting around suicide has opened a door for public discussion about the topic. As a mental health professional, it is my hope that this will, over time, aid in reducing the stigma that surrounds suicide in particular, and mental health problems generally. Suicide prevention research highlights the power of stigma and taboo when it comes to help-seeking behaviours for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. People of fear that by speaking out, they will be judged an attention seeker. They fear not being believed, or worse, ignored. These stigma-fanned fears, have the power to keep people silent. We must break through this barrier. As such, in public discussion around suicide and mental health, a balance needs to be found is between sensitivity and open discussion.
Let’s Address A Couple of Myths …
There are a number of persistent myths around suicidal thoughts and behaviours that are important to debunk because they can impact the opportunities for open dialogue and help-seeking.
- MYTH – Talking about suicide encourages people to do it … The opposite is true. By talking openly about suicide, we reduce the stigma surrounding suicide, we encourage help-seeking and we can offer support.
- MYTH – Feeling suicidal is permanent … Suicidal thoughts and feelings are transient. They may be triggered by specific situations or emotional states, which can change. The concept of transience is powerfully important. Knowing that feelings can change and eventually pass can help delay suicidal behaviour and encourage help-seeking.
- MYTH – People who talk about suicide don’t intend to do it … When people talk about suicide they may be reaching out for help, trying to utilise learned coping strategies, and drawing on support. When people talk about feeling suicidal it is important to listen, believe, and support them to get appropriate help.
For more myth-debunking, the World Health Organisation has put together a helpful resource here.
Keep the Conversation Going …
We need to keep having this conversation about suicide. By talking and writing in responsible and sensitive ways about suicide, and by doing so openly and respectfully, we do much to reduce stigma, increase support, and normalise help-seeking.
Where to Get Help …
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, seek support to get you through until you feel safe again. Talk to a friend, a mentor, a parent, or a partner. If you feel you can’t do that, speak to a professional such as your GP, a psychologist, or other mental health professional. Reach out to a professional organisation such as Lifeline Australia (in Australia call 13 11 14), BeyondBlue (in Australia call 1300 22 4626), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US (in the US call 1800 273 8255). A list of suicide crisis services in and outside of Australia can be found here.
If you are in immediate danger, call your local emergency services (in Australia call 000, in the US and Canada call 911).
Please know that you are never alone. No matter how bleak things may seem, you are not alone. Talk, and then talk some more.