To the Media: Don't Forget About Me When You Report About Suicide
Dear Members of the Media,
This past week, as you reported on the death of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, many of you once again ignored the recommendations for responsible reporting on suicide.
These recommendations are in place for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to try and minimize the chances of suicide contagion, or copycat suicides. According to the The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount duration and prominence of the coverage. Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines & images and repeated extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
But I would like to add another reason that following the recommendations matters. You see for people like me, survivors of suicide loss, the notion of how our loved ones died is hard enough to live with. We may struggle with flashbacks, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of us found our loved ones, some have recreated images in our own minds based upon the details we came to know. But for all of us, it is a pain that is indescribable and one we must live with for the rest of our days.
My father took his own life at the age of 72, just over two years ago. It has taken a great deal of work for me to navigate this path through the traumatic loss. And there is not a day that goes by that I am not haunted by an image of his final moments. In the beginning those images were a constant assault on my senses. Two years later they still remain, but they are no longer at the forefront of my every waking moment. I am grateful for that healing, though I can not ever think about my dad in life without being confronted by his death. I can’t savor a memory without the taint of pain and trauma. And I am constantly vulnerable to triggers that will, without warning, blindside me and bring me to my knees with despair.
So, when you choose to ignore the recommendations for responsive reporting on suicide loss, and I am confronted with a barrage of headlines on the radio, social media, in the paper or on the television, you also do harm to me. Because those headlines serve as a trigger, one that rips open the very fragile scab that has formed over my loss and exposes every ounce of my pain. The images I’ve worked to place on the back burner of my days come roaring in with a vengeance, the tears begin to flow and I feel assaulted by your salacious details. And long after I turn you off your words linger.
You as members of the media have the power to change the conversation around suicide. You can help to break down the walls of shame and stigma by talking about mental illness, and how none of us is immune. You can share important information that might reach someone in crisis and enable them to get the help they need. You can report on issues around suicide prevention and shed light on important programs. You can ask politicians and leaders questions about addressing issues of mental health in our country. You can take the tragic death of someone famous and help meaning to come of it. In the case of Chester Bennington or Chris Cornell, you can talk about substance abuse as well, because substance abuse and mental health go hand in hand. You can make good come out of sorrow and loss.
And you can remember the vulnerable who are watching. Those living with suicidal ideation, and struggling to hold on.
You can help to ensure that those of us who have already suffered the unimaginable do not have our pain compounded by your words and images.
You can do your job responsibly and ethically.
It’s not that hard to do. And you might just save a life along the way.
A Suicide Loss Survivor
If you are in crisis and need help call 1-800-273-TALK
Click here for media guidelines on Responsible Reporting on Suicide
Follow this journey on Reflecting Out Loud.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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