By contributing writer Jenny Holt
The Vienna subway system opened in 1978 and soon after it became seen as an acceptable place to die by suicide. Train-based suicides are nothing new, but the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention soon realized that every time a subway system suicide was reported in the media, copycat suicides using the same method and places would occur. After creating media reporting guidelines in 1987 to minimize reporting; especially of the methods employed, the number of suicides fell by 80%.
What this example shows is how mis-reporting of suicides can encourage those who are susceptible. This is not limited to mainstream media in terms of newspapers and TV channels, but also social media and other websites. The question of whether the media inspire – on purpose or by accident, suicide clusters, and whether they have a moral duty to report the exact truth or modify it for the sake of others is one which will run and run. Let’s take a look at each element, one by one.There must be some validity to the argument because studies show that celebrity suicides reported in the media are 14.3 times more likely to inspire copycats than those that did not.
What are Copycat Suicides?
A copycat suicide is where one person’s suicide inspires others, sometimes people known to them, but usually total strangers, to also take their own lives. Quite often this involves using the same method as the original. There are many examples of this happening ranging from the Vienna subway suicides to a spate of hangings in Bridgend, Wales, in 2008. These tend to be in larger clusters than when someone takes their own life due to the suicide of someone else – perhaps the most famous being Yasunari Kawabata taking his own life a few years after Yukio Mishima’s own seppuku.
With movies such as Virgin Suicides romanticizing youthful suicide, and with stories of live Internet suicides, Facebook walls, and of young lovers killing themselves in Japanese literature, you would be forgiven for thinking that copycat suicides were exclusively a young person’s thing – teens and early 20s. However, while they are one of the most susceptible groups, senior citizens suffering from great financial and health related stress are also equally likely to do this. The least likely, are actually those in middle age, 30s through to mid-50s, who are the most financially stressed, but also have careers to pursue and families to care for.
What Role Does the Media Play in Them?
The main role the media plays can be broken down into method awareness and eulogizing the deceased while also creating a sense of fame for them. Raising awareness of the method used can come from the dry reporting of the facts. For a susceptible person who is considering suicide, the method used may give them the realization that they too can do it or it may focus their minds on that particular method as fitting them personally.
Eulogizing comes from the media focussing on the deceased, speaking to friends and relatives, showing scenes of sadness and love, of showing bunches of flowers outside their home or the place of suicide, and with the advent of social media, showing thousands of people commenting positively on Facebook walls or tribute websites. This inspires some people, who might not have been suicidal, but wanted to feel love or be famous, to do this too, so in death they receive the same kind of reverence as the person they saw on TV or on social media.
How Should they be Reported?
Depression and suicide are real things and real problems. They will happen with or without media coverage. The media should never be blamed for all suicides. However, no matter how well intentioned the coverage, such as focusing on the importance of mental health care after the passing of legend Robin Williams or the earnest grief of relatives of any suicide, does have unintended consequences. Suicide.org have drawn up a series of recommendations for media outlets to help produce coverage which offers more help to the depressed and susceptible. These include:
- Never making suicide the top story or a cover story.
- Not romanticizing or sensationalizing suicide.
- Never make suicide heroic.
- Cover mental health topics around suicide.
- Give out suicide prevention and emergency contact information.
- Do not go into detail on the methods used.
- Do not focus a suicide’s reason on a single event.
- Do not use the term “committed suicide” – commit infers a sin, use the term “died by suicide.”
These are just some of the recommendations which will help bring people to terms with what happened while minimizing the risk of the contagion spreading to other people. Suicide is not a crime, but it is also not something to be glorified. Real people with real problems need love and support.