Art for Do No Harm.
Richard A. Chance
Jess McAllen,  November 29

Do No Harm

The complex ethics of portraying suicide

Richard A. Chance
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Two centuries’ worth of dispute about suicide prevention burst into the pop culture zeitgeist when 13 Reasons Why was aired by Netflix in March of 2017. The “passion project” of Disney protégé Selena Gomez, it is centered on thirteen tapes pre-recorded by moody beauty Hannah Baker, each detailing how certain people influenced the high schooler’s decision to kill herself. It culminated in a graphic three-minute suicide scene.

Experts in the field of suicidology, normally only too happy to be in the background of the wellbeing awareness scene, ventured out from academia: they believed that the effect of a revenge-based plot, mixed in with a graphic how-to death scene and a lack of alternative solutions, was a ticking timebomb for influencing vulnerable youth. They weren’t alone in their fears. Counselors, teachers, and people who had attempted suicide themselves or were bereaved by suicide all raised concerns.

But for every person triggered by the show, there was someone who saw themselves in Hannah, or a parent who finally “understood depression,” and as a result, the people warning of the show’s dangers were often brushed off as stuffy killjoys, not far from the dance-banning parents in Footloose. The fight—and it is a fight, with personal attacks levelled at perceived ivory towers or careless advocates—around how best to discuss suicide goes on. And the experts are largely losing. Perhaps this is why Netflix felt comfortable going ahead with the show despite a warning against it from Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, who was contacted for advice before it aired.

13 Reasons Why, in its first blush of promotion at least, was seen as a brave prompt for difficult conversations. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight and a cold, hard study noting a rise in youth suicides after the show, people are more circumspect. Netflix itself, realizing the dangers of a detailed depiction of suicide—or at least bad press and potential lawsuits—deleted the death scene from its archive, long after most people had already watched its first season. Still, the show’s producers seemed unwilling to pay real attention to the phenomenon of suicide contagion: a controversial but longstanding theory that posits that the suicides of other people and, significantly, those portrayed in media, can influence another person’s decision to kill themself. Despite decades of evidence, the idea of suicide contagion is hard to swallow, not just for Netflix but many others. It is often complicated by a media-driven “conspiracy of silence” around the subject and an unwillingness to hold up a mirror to real societal failings that are significant drivers of suicide, such as abuse, poverty, and inaccessible mental health and addiction help.


Long before Hannah Baker, there was the lovesick, blue-tailcoat-yellow-waistcoat-wearing Werther of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Published in 1774, his One Reason Why, as relayed in a series of letters, was the “bright, beautiful creature” of Charlotte, “whose presence softens pain, and sheds happiness whichever way she turns.” Inevitably: “All men are disappointed in their hopes, and deceived in their expectations.” Werther shocked readers by killing himself. Goethe published the book at the ripe age of twenty-five—about the same age Gomez was when 13 Reasons Why first aired—and was surprised at its reception: the book spurred operas, parodies, and perfume (“Eau de Werther”). And, reportedly, suicides. A year after its publication, Leipzig officials imposed a ban on the novel and the “Werther costume”  (which also included trousers and tall boots), and this ban was followed in other parts of Europe such as Italy and Copenhagen as panic about the book’s dangerous influence spread. That same year, Goethe wrote to a friend, “I am heartily tired of having poor Werther exhumed and dissected.” In the second edition of the book, a new poem was added, ending with the exhortation: “Be a man, and do not follow me [to my doom].”

There were at least a few imitative suicides: in 1778 a heartbroken Christel Von Lassberg drowned herself in the river behind Goethe’s house with a copy of Werther on her, but it is hard to find conclusive evidence on the rumored wider epidemic. While there are doubts as to the extent of Werther’s actual influence as opposed to mere urban legend, the novel became shorthand for the controversial theory of suicide contagion. In 1974, sociologist David Phillips coined the term “Werther Effect” to describe imitative suicides. The theory goes that people already thinking about killing themselves can (intentionally or not), through exposure to media depicting or discussing suicide, find reasons or justification for suicidal behavior, and then act on their feelings.

Suicide contagion presents a particularly thorny problem for journalists, who work in an industry that does the most navel-gazing but the least self-analysis. The deaths of high-profile people are always seen as newsworthy, as are the deaths of ordinary people when several die within a close period of time, or as the result of exogenous events, like the current pandemic. (“For months, he helped his son keep suicidal thoughts at bay. Then came the pandemic”; “Teen commits suicide likely over stress from coronavirus lockdown”; “British teen dies after suicide attempt due to coronavirus fears”. . .) Just this month, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted a suicide hotline number, writing: “Suicide figures are up. Could 2 followers please copy and re-post this tweet?. . .” Kris Jenner posted an Instagram graphic about how suicides were up 200 percent. Tom Brady posted an Instagram story in October saying there were more suicides than Covid deaths in the last two months. Those claims were thoroughly disputed—the data doesn’t even exist yet—and the 200 percent figure seems to have originated from a television report stating suicide prevention hotline phone calls were up 200 percent.

This isn’t to say that there is not a rise in people feeling suicidal, anxious, or distressed. But the assumption that this automatically leads to suicide is dangerous, potentially normalizing the idea that this is a rational way to respond to the pandemic. After some natural disasters, the suicide rate can stay the same or even decrease as people band together in the immediate aftermath, although it can eventually increase later on in a “lagged effect.” Either way, with suicide, it’s nearly impossible to ethically know the truth—maybe the suicide rate was going to be lower this year and the pandemic stopped that from happening.

If the mere act of reporting suicides could spur others to kill themselves, then the role of the journalist is more complicated than simply delivering the news. The double-bind is that journalists can spread awareness of suicide warning signs at the same time as exacerbating warning signs themselves. While studies have shown that the suicide rate increased following certain types of media coverage, it is hard to demonstrate that the people who died by suicide actually saw that coverage. This gives journalists a compelling reason to suggest reporting guidelines are too restrictive. But there are some more or less agreed-upon factors to reduce contagion,  backed by evidence. The frequency of articles, sensational headlines, prominently placed images of the deceased—these all have starring roles in the Do-Nots of best-practice suicide reporting guidelines. Contagion is often interpreted as meaning that someone who is exposed to media about suicide is suddenly at risk. Really, it is an exacerbating factor for those already at risk. Simplified and sentimental media coverage can have a strong effect on people already considering suicide, especially when they identify with the person who died, more-so if that person was famous.

But the guidelines are often not followed, or they are cherry-picked, as if adhering to one suggestion makes up for the ethical pitfalls of ignoring the others. One practice favored by the media is to include a list of suicide helplines at the end of a potentially triggering story. But this alone can’t temper an otherwise reckless piece of writing, and not all readers make it to the end anyway. In a discussion on suicide contagion, Columbia University psychiatry professor Madelyn Gould said, “you can’t publish a story that sensationalizes suicide, that glamorizes suicide, and then think that by putting in a crisis line number that it’s going to make everything safe and useful.”

In journalism school, reporters-to-be are taught to balance their personal ethics with the public interest. Personal squeamishness about requesting an interview with the family of a murder victim can be outweighed by the public interest benefit, for example. But suicide reporting resists such linear rules. Like concerns about glorifying mass shooters, the focus of a piece on suicide can make all the difference. The reasons one person kills themself can be totally different than the reasons of another. One might have had a lifelong mental illness, while the other could have taken their life in response to a specific situation. One might have planned for months or years; the other may have made a spur-of-the-moment decision on a drunken night. It is a societal and public health problem that doesn’t benefit from one-size-fits-all reporting.


In 2017, a UNICEF report found that New Zealand had the highest suicide rate in the developed world for teenagers fifteen to nineteen years old: twice as high as the United States and five times that of Britain. While still high, it has been relatively steady after hitting a peak in 1995. (The overall rate across the country’s population has also been relatively steady since its peak in 1998.) Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have higher suicide rates than the general population. Sarah Fortune, the Deputy Chair of New Zealand’s Suicide Mortality Review Committee, said via email that “suicide rates for Māori tended to be highest for males, those aged 15-44 years and those living in more deprived areas.”

Until July 2016, however, it was illegal for journalists in New Zealand to call a death a suicide until a coroner had found the death to be self-inflicted, which could take months or years, and still couldn’t report on the method without a coroner’s express permission. The law was amended to allow for reporting on “suspected suicides” and to enable more transparency of the circumstances leading to a suicide, with the caveat that journalists could not state the method, or the location if it could imply the method. (Journalists can apply for exemptions, but the criteria are strict.) These regulations have their origins in a 1951 law called the Coroners Act, which included a clause stating that court proceedings surrounding an apparent self-inflicted death could not be reported until the coroner had made a finding. Even then, according to old transcripts of Parliamentary debates, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association objected. But New Zealand, whose population is nearly five million, doesn’t have a constitution specifically protecting freedom of the press, which means that passing laws to control it are possible, if uncommon. To keep things in check, the press relies on the Bill of Rights Act 1990, which protects the civil and political rights of New Zealanders, and specifically on section 14, which ensures the right to freedom of expression.

Personal squeamishness about requesting an interview with the family of a murder victim can be outweighed by the public interest benefit. But suicide reporting resists such linear rules.

In 2006 the restrictions around reporting on suicide were further tightened. The New Zealand government tends to take the advice of suicidologists seriously, but many times has failed to adequately engage with media. In Parliament debates leading up to the passage of a revised Coroner’s Act, the Minister for Courts, Rick Barker, laid his feelings about objections to the rule bare: “If the media were able to highlight a particular youth suicide in an area,” he said, “the shock and horror aspect of it would certainly sell even more newspapers—and we are told that is the benefit for freedom of information.” He scoffed at journalists who argued, as they do today and probably will in another decade, that “removing the restrictions of reporting details of suicide will improve public understanding of the issue and reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths.” Bluntly, he said: “the Government does not agree.”

The latest round of this tug of war began in 2012, when the government announced yet another review of the Act, which deals with wider coroner-related matters, and journalists took the chance to lobby against the reporting restrictions. The Law Commission was asked to review the suicide reporting section of the Act, a review that was released in 2014 and concluded that the risks of reporting on the method of suicide were more dangerous than other ways in which journalists can irresponsibly report on suicide, such as prominent headlines or over-simplification. The Commission’s recommendations to slightly open up reporting restrictions were accepted by the government of the day. While there are fines up to $20,000 for media companies and up to $5,000 for individuals breaking the current law, the Coroner’s office confirmed that no one has ever been charged. The Commission’s report noted that the only evidence strong enough to justify a criminal conviction was “linking from the reporting of the method of the suicide death to the subsequent suicidal behavior”—an almost impossibly high bar.

As with most reporting in New Zealand, it falls on the Media Council, the country’s largest industry watchdog, to self-monitor. The council doesn’t have any power to prosecute or make findings of a legal nature, the only requirement is that publications in breach publish its adverse finding. Last year, a complaint to the council described a New Zealand Herald article (“UK Man Found Dead After Posting Heart-Breaking Final Message on Facebook”) as irresponsible. The complaint called the article’s simplification—that the man killed himself because of a breakup—as well as the sensationalism of publishing the suicide note and photos from the man’s social media profile, “dangerous.” In response, the Media Council referred to a judgment by its predecessor, the Press Council: “Blaming the messenger for causing or worsening the problem, whose basic causes must be sought elsewhere, fails to recognize the important and cleansing nature of a blaze of publicity being focused on the darker side of New Zealand life.” A Herald editor offered his own insight: “It seems that relationships, as they can, faltered and they were discussing separation. It would appear that’s what prompted him to take the action that he did.”

While the article itself was republished from overseas media, not original reporting, the editor’s response sums up the attitude of many journalists when told to consider the risk of reporting suicide: we know best. The very condensed debate and reluctance to accept suicide contagion as fact in New Zealand serves as a microcosm for global media attitudes on the subject. 


The effect of the legal change allowing journalists to report on “suspected suicides” was truly felt in 2017. The New Zealand Herald ran nearly sixty articles on youth suicide over a span of six weeks in a series called Break the Silence. The series began with this typically dramatic opening: “A boy in school uniform is found dead in the garage of a state house and the girl who liked him writes his name across her arm and kills herself.” Consequently, teenage suicide became a wedge issue in that year’s election. Campaigns featured grieving family members, who themselves are at higher risk of suicide, and there were constant media interviews with freshly minted activists, resulting in a national mental health inquiry when the Labour-led government was elected. In the meantime, the number of provisional suicide deaths had gone from 606 the prior year to 668, and the number per 100,000 people (a preferable marker, which takes into account population growth) from 12.64 to 13.67, a small increase but a noted change after years of this number hovering at the 12 per 100,000 people mark. To put that into context, the number of people who died by Covid-19 in New Zealand so far has been 0.51 per 100,000.

Of course, this was also the year of 13 Reasons Why, as well as a number of high-profile celebrity suicides, amidst the continuation of a punitive welfare benefit system, rising housing and rental prices, and long wait lists for clinical psychologists, which can lead to hopelessness. The suicidologist mantra that correlation does not equal causation applies here, too. But the people arguing to loosen reporting restrictions often posit that talking more about suicide would decrease its incidence without the evidence to back up that claim. The journalist who spearheaded the Break the Silence project told Radio New Zealand that she had been able to cover suicide methods at her old job in Canada, and that “those raw and gory details may have actually discouraged some people. By saying someone has ‘taken their own life,’ there’s almost a romantic notion to that.” There appear to be no studies proving this particular hypothesis, however. And “if we’re making spurious connections,” as a worker in New Zealand’s mental health field put it, “why is no one talking about how the rate jumped when we all talked about suicide constantly?”

In fact, there is a body of research showing the link between reporting on a method of suicide and an uptick of deaths in that manner. The most famous is perhaps the “charcoal burning” suicides in Hong Kong. Until 1998, there were no reported deaths using this particular method. Then, that fall, a high-profile suicide using charcoal was followed by a spate of sensationalist reporting. Within the year, deaths occurred using the exact same method. A 2018 study found that charcoal burning still accounted for 20 percent of all suicides in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The study also noted that the rise in deaths via this method did not equate to a fall in deaths by other methods: this counters a popular idea that suicide contagion doesn’t change the fact that people will die, just the when or the how. This was also found in David Phillips’s original Werther study: he noted that there was no subsequent dip in future suicides after such an increase, as would be expected if the inevitable had just been pushed forward.

This is not a geographically or culturally specific phenomenon. A 1994 study found a 75 percent decrease in subway-related suicide attempts in Vienna, Austria, after a push by experts for less sensational media coverage: findings that underscore the importance of getting media on board with voluntary reporting guidelines. After Robin Williams’s death in 2014, there was a 32 percent increase in suicides via the method he used, along with an almost ten percent increase in overall suicides in the United States in the months after he died (the highest rates observed were for men and people aged thirty to forty-four). Different countries tend to have different “popular” methods. In the United States, half of suicides are via firearms, but the Centers for Disease Control, operating under the 1996 Dickey Amendment, is prohibited from spending funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” so available research on this subject is limited.


In a public statement following the deletion of the 13 Reasons Why suicide scene, showrunner Brian Yorkey said the creative intent behind portraying “the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail” was “to tell the truth about the horror of such an act, and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it.” The production initially had a relatively good reception in the United States but this was soon marred by the concerns of those working in suicide prevention as they got around to watching the show. Nic Sheff, one of the show’s writers, subsequently argued in a 2017 op-ed that the graphic detail of Hannah’s suicide was necessary to depict because it would deter viewers from copying her. “I know it was right,” he wrote, relaying his own suicide attempt, which was abandoned after Sheff “flashed upon a memory” of a woman he’d met in rehab who was horrifically maimed from a failed attempt herself, “because my own life was saved when the truth of suicide was finally held up for me to see in all its horror—and reality.” In a move common to arguments for or against suicide contagion, both Yorkey and Sheff relied on personal experience or pure projection rather than wider evidence. Their theory ended up being tested on millions of teen viewers: 13 Reasons Why was the third most “binge watched” show on Netflix the year it came out.

That people who haven’t spent years systematically reviewing suicides decide they alone know what will stop people killing themselves highlights the way both the entertainment industry and the news media can overreach in a well-meaning quest to “make a difference.” If a journalist or TV writer offered their opinions on curing cancer, they’d be labeled a grifter. Yet, in the absence of a tangible cure for suicide, this kind of savior mentality often arises without criticism. More complicated still is the fact that it often comes from people who genuinely want to prevent others from going through what they’ve experienced themselves.

In 2000, the University of Auckland’s student magazine Craccum caused a massive uproar when co-editors Ben Thomas and James Cardno published a piece titled “Suicide is Painless?”; an article with the heading “SUICIDE And how to do it,” with methods and graphic images; and an opinion piece by Tim Selwyn arguing for the right to kill oneself and attacking what he called the “suicide industry.” “We know that suicide is one of the few taboo subjects still left in society,” the editors wrote, in an introduction that could easily slot into any mainstream 2020 article on the subject. “We know that New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the world. We don’t know why this is, and we don’t know guaranteed solutions to the problem. . . All we do know is that support helps and silence doesn’t.” The “guide” was meant to “explode the myth that suicide is a ‘painless, easy way out,’” they wrote. Since the article didn’t discuss a specific individual’s suicide, the law was powerless to stop them. But they were censured by the New Zealand Press Council. While the council didn’t normally uphold complaints against student media, they made an exception because the series of articles “had received widespread coverage in the mainstream press and other media.”

My friend Ben was one of those student editors, something I only found out a few months into our friendship, when I mentioned that in a suicidal episode at the age of twenty-one I had googled methods and the Craccum article, in PDF version, was one of the first results. At the time I told Ben this, I was of the opinion, as many fresh journalism graduates in New Zealand are, that we should be allowed to report on method: the ins and outs of contagion, funnily enough, aren’t covered extensively in journalism classes beyond an ominous warning to know the law. I thought people were numb to the issue if it didn’t involve them personally, but that if they heard how people were dying, they might be shocked into paying attention. As I was ranting in an Auckland gastro pub, however, there was that Craccum article, which had totally changed my mind on the method of my own attempt. Not because the prospect became too painful, but because I realized it was highly likely I’d survive if I stuck with my original plan. Instead I chose a more violent method, which didn’t work out. Obviously. Even now, after years of reading about contagion, I’m reluctant to name my original method choice and subsequent decision. It comes down to timing. So, I told Ben, I guess I might be wrong. He was horrified.

Twenty years on, Ben says people still talk to him about the notorious Craccum issue. “A number have said that basically it had the intended effect and discouraged them from trying any of the methods we described,” he told me, but “I’ve met people, who I was very close to, who I would never have expected to have even heard of it, who were really upset by it.” He was twenty-one at the time and didn’t know much about the research on suicide contagion. Now he reads studies on the subject, “in part to prove I was right and the people who criticized me were wrong.” Although, he said, “it is clear, even just anecdotally, that lifting the profile of suicide hasn’t done much to stop it.”

Ben said that as a student, he saw things “a lot more through the lens of personal psychology.” While he believed that describing suicide as “passing peacefully, with no details” was “romanticizing” suicide, he also admits to romanticizing many things himself—like the idea that “adults don’t understand us” or that “most of these issues could be solved by being there for each other and a few inspirational Dawson’s Creek-style monologues.”

In 2006, New Zealand’s Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton, whose daughter died by suicide in 1993, said he was “deeply concerned about stories. . . that perpetuate the myth that there is some tyranny of silence around suicide reporting in this country.” And Ben would discover the same arguments he made decades ago being rehashed every year: “Over the next decade, there seemed to be lots of stories and events and programs about how ‘no one is talking about this.’ . . My experience was probably a little atypical, but I started thinking, actually, yeah, they have been. But the numbers didn’t really move.” Today, the idea of a conspiracy of silence around suicide still persists in New Zealand and the world. There is a popular notion that the academics don’t want you to know about suicide (because they have failed to prevent it), nor does the government (because they’re killing us), and that the media are covering it all up (because they’re in the pocket of the government, or in New Zealand: the government is censoring them). It is hyperbolic but, like most conspiracies, there is a reason it exists. Health officials and inadequate and racist systems carry on being incompetent with little public scrutiny, hiding in the crevices of vague “wellbeing” language, and perhaps erring too much on the side of caution when deciding what information to share with the public about suicide.


All this talking we’ve been doing should mean that we’re now delving into complex factors in suicide: child abuse, long-term illnesses[*] like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the ongoing and traumatic intergenerational effects of colonization. But this rarely seems to happen. The discussion revolves around the discussion itself. Maybe it’s fitting that as a tonic we probably need more awareness about awareness.

Sometimes in the rush to have a conversation, grieving families air their pain too soon, processing denial, guilt, and anger through the journalist’s notepad. The 2014 Law Commission report noted that families wanted to speak about their experience “with the intent of helping other people in similar situations or of exposing poor practice in public institutions,” but after agreeing to speak, some families “later regretted it.” This makes sense: while many journalists have good intentions in reporting on suicide, it’s unlikely such altruism is universal. Media outlets chase flashy headlines and web traffic, and the story of a heartbroken parent gives rise to suicide-clickbait. Speaking to media before properly grieving can result in families wanting a simple reason for the death, or for malfeasance to have been at play (and sometimes this is the case). Similarly, families who speak to media in the midst of their grief—when they might only be able or willing to talk about how the person who died was someone who was happy, loved, and had everything going for them—can lead journalists to these kinds of conclusions. But there are many reasons why children might not have felt comfortable telling their parents about their feelings. Family abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, is a significant factor in suicides.

Ultimately, news reporting and public discussion on suicide are a small part of the puzzle. It is hard to grasp how many suicides are affected by contagion, although research on suicide “clusters” which often occur within families, peer groups, or those within close geographical proximity, have found that about five percent of teen suicides occur in clusters.  One media expert once wrote, of suicide contagion cause and effect, “it is unlikely an ethical experiment could be designed which would show one.” But it is, as the Law Commission report noted, a risk that is “relatively easy to modify through education of journalists and the public. . .” Wider questions about the right to die, the role of restraint, and compulsory mental health treatment remain. However, it’s easier to focus on the public conversation when the things that can help mitigate suicide rates beyond talking—housing, substance abuse treatment, therapy—can be expensive, or at least not a high priority for governments to provide. They also don’t fit into snappy soundbites or Instagram pictures for the burgeoning advocate.

Even longform investigations into suicide, with notable exceptions, tend to search for simple answers in order to wrap up the depressing topic with a little bow at the end. We’re left over and over again with archetypes: bullied teenager, divorced dad, student devastated “after receiving exam results.” A particularly egregious example followed the suicide of New Zealand model Charlotte Dawson in 2014. Because she died in Australia, New Zealand outlets were able to report the story without the legal restrictions, and they took that freedom with gusto. One columnist, writing to Dawson in the second-person, said that the model, soon to enter her fifties, killed herself because she was leaving her youthful looks behind: “you felt shunned for being single, being childless, for having a mental illness. The truth is no one cares. But for you that was even worse.” This over-simplification, aside from being a weird public exercise in analyst role play, can lead to people going through similar problems seeing suicide as the only option: If they can’t get through the same challenge, why would I?

Not that suicide can’t be portrayed responsibly. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, written by and starring Rachel Bloom, the main character’s attempt isn’t a sensationalized, climactic moment. Instead, the show focuses on her recovery and the realistic support she receives from her friends (right down to the one who makes it all about herself, liveblogging from the hospital room). This is the counterpunch to the Werther Effect, sometimes called the Papageno Effect, or a “mastery of crisis” story. It derives from the character Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, who, like Werther, is suicidal over lost love, until his friends remind him of all the reasons to continue living. And most people who experience suicidal ideation do end up living. It sounds hackneyed, and it’s easy to roll your eyes at the wishful thinking of suicidologists who nudge journalists toward these kinds of stories, but there could be a melding of the gritty, confrontational exposés (which are important, especially in challenging the co-opting of the 1970s “mad pride movement” where government agencies benefit from pushing recovery stories, something user-led group Recovery in the Bin has dubbed “neo-recovery”) and the type of reporting that offers a smidgeon of hope. One study that found repetitive reporting of suicide led to an increase in suicide rates also found that reporting of ideation accompanied by alternative coping strategies resulted in a decrease in suicide rates.

Contagion—and the entire public conversation around suicide—might be a small part of a much larger constellation, but if journalists are so convinced they have some kind of noble role to play in preventing suicide, why not just follow the evidence? This might mean stewing in past ways their reporting could have been dangerous (I’ve done this, it’s not fun), and having to rethink their own ethical approaches, but there is also the potential to use their skills to report on the social and political circumstances that can create deprivation, mental illness, and abuse—and the subsequent ways people in need of help are treated. Ironically, the crusading “awareness-raising” suicide reporting that presents itself as bravery rarely leads to greater understanding of what actually drives and prevents suicide. This is especially important now, with journalists invested in reporting on potential increases in suicide due to the pandemic and lockdown, possibly adding to a feeling of inevitable hopelessness in already vulnerable people (and ignoring the fact that people already at higher risk, e.g., those less likely to have secure jobs and housing are going to be hit hardest by recession). Even people who have rejected the idea of suicide contagion as being discernible in national statistics would admit that widely publicized suicides might lead to imitation. When it comes to making a judgment call on the value of reporting for change versus the risk of potentially hurting someone, we know that it isn’t the fact of suicide that leads to contagion, it is how we present it. And the thing that usually has less embellishments and is often more nuanced than it first appears is also what journalists purportedly strive for: the truth.

[*] I prefer to use the term “illness” as a buffer against language that sanitizes mental health, but some in the mental health community now advocate for other terms.

Jess McAllen is a journalist and fact checker from New Zealand.

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