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Suicide Contagion is Real


        Between 1984 and 1987, journalists in Vienna covered the deaths of individuals who jumped in front of trains in the subway system.  The coverage was extensive and dramatic.  In 1987, a campaign alerted reporters to the possible negative effects of such reporting, and suggested alternate strategies for coverage.  In the first 6 months after the campaign began, subway suicides in Vienna declined as well.
Research finds an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when:

  • The number of stories about individual suicides increases
  • A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
  • The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
  • The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic (A recent example: "Boy, 10, Kills Himself Over Poor Grades")

        The media can play a powerful role in educating the public about suicide prevention.  Stories about suicide may be newsworthy and need to be covered but they also have the potential to do harm.  The following recommendations for media coverage of suicide have been shown to decrease suicide rates.

  • Certain ways of describing suicide in the news contribute to what behavioral scientists call "suicide contagion" or "copycat" suicides.
  • Research suggests that inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act may encourage others to identify with the victim
  • Exposure to suicide method through media reports can encourage vulnerable individuals to imitate it.  Clinicians believe the danger is even greater if there is a detailed description of the method. Research indicates that detailed descriptions or pictures of the location or site of a suicide encourage imitation
  •  Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person may encourage identification with the victim

        While this article was written and distributed by the groups listed at the bottom of this page to target the power and influence of the media, there are likely to be other factors involved with multiple suicides in a community.  Take the word media out and insert "community conversations/emphasis." If a suicide is the focus of most conversations, speeches, and discussions for a long period of time, the same outcome can occur. 
        Does this mean no one is to talk about the suicide?  No.  It means that the story can be reported factually just like any other story.  Family members and groups, the person was associated with, are allowed to grieve as needed.  However, it is not what everyone is talking about after awhile.  It is not the main focus of the community.  The person is not forgotten but the tragedy does not paralyze or emotionally hold the community hostage.
        There is another factor that is more complicated - the perception of certain individuals in the community.  No matter what you do, the media or general public, there will be some people who will romanticize and immortalize those who take their own life.   And in turn, they choose to continue the suicidal events.

(Taken from - "Recommendations for the Media" from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center)

Ron Trusler is Chief Executive Officer of Central Plains Center.  He can be reached at 806. 293.2636 or at ron@clplains.org 

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