Robin Williams headlines make my work as a suicide researcher seem futile

People want answers, but the media has a responsibility to protect. EPA/Tracey Nearmy

Suicide researchers are a robust group. We have to be. We are employed, often for years at a time, to think about death by suicide with the aim of finding patterns that can help to prevent further deaths. It is an emotionally challenging and complex topic. Those of us who have dedicated considerable portions of our career to thinking about it do so with the sole intention of creating evidence to help address the problem.

It is notoriously difficult to predict times of increased suicide risk because the variables are so great. However, there is strong evidence of a link between insensitive media reporting of suicide and increases in the suicide rate.

To say the reporting has disappointed many of us who work in suicide research is an understatement. From a researcher’s perspective, the solution is quite simple: don’t report on the methods or reasons for suicide in a simplistic way. Yet some of the headlines I read yesterday suggested the suicide research we produce is absolutely futile.

I am confused. Journalists tell me there is always a detailed discussion held before reporting of a suicide with the reporting guidelines held at the forefront of their decisions. They are clearly not ignorant of the issues.

So what is it that the media are responding to when they report on the details of a suicide in this way? The Leveson Inquiry has taught us that journalists will fight to protect their right to publish stories which they think are in the public’s interest. Is it possible that in reporting what suicide researchers would call “excessive detail” journalists are merely responding to the public’s curiosity about suicide?

The how and the why

Suicide is a unique form of death. In my as yet unpublished PhD research, I spoke to friends of those who died by suicide and suggested the rationalisation of their friend’s suicides were focused on two areas, the how and the why. By knowing the method their friend had undertaken they were able to place their actions into context and determine if the death was deliberate. By finding out the circumstances in the final days of their friends’ lives they were able to form an explanation for the death. This often allowed them to separate suicide as an option from their own life.

Over the years, I have also attended social events where the revelation that I am suicide researcher has been met, almost exclusively with a sense of morbid fascination. The story behind suicide fascinates people and frightens them. They are keen to share ideas on suicide and often ask detailed questions that indicate they had thought in detail about the subject but had not been given permission to speak about it. Listening to people talk about suicide and responding to their questions has led me to conclude that many members of the general public are interested in both the how and the why.

A public discussion

Society’s attitudes towards suicide have undergone a major transformation over the past century. It is no longer a criminal act and we understand more about the reasons it takes place. This transformation has destimgatised the act of suicide and made the types of discussion we now see on social media possible – both the good and the bad.

But stigma potentially has an important role to play in the prevention of suicide. Researchers have questioned whether the de-stigmatisation of suicide makes it an available method of dying that would otherwise be forbidden. Similarly, at the conclusion of her study into young suicide, Donna Gaines asks whether the taboo on suicide be “strengthened or deconstructed. Are we better able to suppress the urge by making it unthinkable or by thinking it through?”

Many people each year are touched by the tragic reality of those who end their lives. In the past, it was suggested that for every person who dies by suicide, six people will be affected. However, it is now accepted that this figure is likely to be much higher. Real people kill themselves every day and many more think about doing so. The average individual may have already been confronted with the death of a person to suicide. Celebrity deaths appear to grant people permission to engage in a discussion that might not otherwise have taken place. It is common and normal for people to ask questions about how and why a suicide has taken place.

But the media must accept that while the public’s curiosity as to the how and why of a suicide may be a natural reaction, it is nonetheless problematic. We cannot print headlines that transform the act of suicide from an unthinkable to a thinkable act, to an act that is associated with particular circumstances. Placing these details in the headlines, rather than the body of an article seems particularly blatant. It makes them stark, real and most importantly, it makes them unavoidable.

Careful reporting

If we are to prevent imitative suicides all reporting must simultaneously provide the public with enough information to understand the death, while providing an image of suicide that is sensitively managed through careful reporting. We are not asking them to lie or hide information. We are asking them to be vague and avoid details.

But we must also accept that the guidelines are just that: “guidelines”. They are not law and at present they are free to be interpreted. Is legislation the answer to the problem of irresponsible reporting? Perhaps.

Still, we cannot change the headlines of yesterday and in some ways to continue the blame debate is futile. As suicide researchers we simply must continue to work with the media to convince them to limit the information they share with people about suicide.