The other day we were talking with Ramón, who is a journalist. He told us that when he studied the degree, in the faculties it was recommended not to write about suicide, since he could encourage the contagion of this behavior among other people.
This phenomenon of imitation is known as the “Werther effect”, although it is also called ” copycat ” in Anglo-Saxon countries and “Yukiko effect” in Japan. In any case, it is a real phenomenon and it has been shown that media coverage can enhance it. The danger of contagion is greater if the person who has taken their own life is famous and if the news is too detailed and sensational.
Make suicidal behavior more visible
So, should the media report on suicides? Yes, but as long as they do it responsibly. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends increasing the visibility of these acts. The more one knows about suicide, the more one knows how to act, and the more widespread myths among the population are discarded, the more one can help to prevent it .
We all know that the media are a powerful tool to influence society, but not everything goes. Depending on how they are written, the news can generate the Werther effect or, conversely, prevent future suicidal behaviour. The latter is called the “Papageno effect” .
There is a false belief that talking about suicide encourages committing it, when, in fact, it is the way to treat it. From different organizations (such as WHO, psychologists’ associations, associations or the Spanish Ministry of Health ) recommendations are being prepared to achieve the Papageno effect.
Responsible writing mini-course
These guidelines could be summarized in the following points:
- Treat the news with the utmost respect, referring to death as a fact and not as an achievement.
- Report suicidal behavior, whether it concerns a famous person or not, avoiding giving excessive details of the methods used and the place where it was carried out, to avoid the imitation effect.
- If the person who has died is famous, we must separate their achievements (sports, art, music…) from the act of suicide. The author of the text must point out his contributions to society and what negative effects her death entails.
- Write the news with great sensitivity, since it can be read by acquaintances or relatives of the affected person. The “3 Rs” must be applied: rigor, respect and responsibility.
- Offer empathic and solidarity messages to the family and relatives in that moment of pain, providing links to support groups for survivors .
- Always include phone numbers, addresses and resources to go to prevent suicide or ask for help. For example, the 112 telephone number ( for emergencies in many countries ) and, in Spain, 024 ( suicidal behavior hotline ) or 717 00 37 17 ( Hope Telephone ).
- Explain different aspects of suicide to educate the population and eliminate false beliefs, without spreading myths .
- Seek advice from expert professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists) and associations to present the information adequately. Contributions or statements from these specialists can be included.
What should not be done
- The news should not appear on the front or back cover of the newspaper.
- Avoid sensational headlines, avoiding the word “suicide”.
- Not explaining in detail the place and the method used, nor how to access it.
- Do not illustrate the information with photographs of the person who has taken their own life, nor of the scene where it occurred. It is also not convenient to resort to images of allusive scenes (train tracks, precipices, ropes, pills…) or morbid ones, both to avoid the imitation effect and to protect relatives and relatives from the pain that they may generate. At this point you must be especially sensitive.
- Even if there is a suicide note, it should not be spread.
- Don’t treat suicide romantically, courageously, as an achievement… Instead, explain it for what it is: a serious and preventable loss. This can help prevent further suicidal acts.
- Do not attribute it to a single reason (heartbreak, eviction, illness…). It is already known that it is a complex phenomenon with multiple causes and factors, and that is how it should be treated in the media.
- Not presenting this act as a reasonable solution to a big problem.
- Do not provide value judgments that may stigmatize both the deceased person and their family.
- Do not use adjectives such as “simple”, “painless”, “quick”, “easy”…
- Do not associate suicidal behavior with mental illness as an explanatory cause.
In conclusion, it is important to know the responsibility that the media have when presenting information to the public and to do so with sensitivity and respect. The way in which these media report influences social perception: journalists can be preventive agents and save lives.
Author Bios: Ana Isabel Cobo Cuenca is a Professor at the University of Castilla la Macha (UCLM). IMCU Group and Francisco Jose Celada Cajal works in Health Psychology, Emergency Picology, Emergency Nursing, Critical Patient Careboth at the University of Castilla-La Mancha