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Researchers Outline Media Guidelines for Reporting on Self-Harm

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Mental health topics can be difficult to discuss. But talking about them is one of the best ways to reduce stigma and assist people who need it with finding help.

Now a team of researchers are making it easier for the media to discuss the topic of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), more commonly known as self-injury, with a set of guidelines for responsible reporting. The research was released in an editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The authors singled out NSSI for their work, defining it as “the purposeful destruction of one’s body tissue without suicidal intent.” They consider it a growing health concern in part because its portrayal in media has grown over the past 15 years, which can lead to irresponsible depictions and coverage.

Guidelines for reporting on suicide have been previously released by both the World Health Organization and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Until now, nothing similar has existed for self-harm. About 5.5% of U.S. adults self-injure and about 17.2% of adolescents. There are no differences in self-injury incidences by ethnic or racial identity, according to research from Cornell University.

For this most recent editorial, the research team compiled six recommendations for media professionals when reporting on or depicting self-harm. They emphasized that particular care should be taken to follow the first three suggestions.

  1. Avoid use of self-harm-related images and details within text, especially of wounds and methods/tools
  2. Highlight efforts to seek treatment, stories of recovery, adaptive coping strategies as alternatives to self-injury, and updated treatment and crisis resources
  3. Avoid misinformation about self-harm by communicating peer-reviewed and empirically supported material, including distinguishing self-injury from suicide
  4. Present information neutrally; avoid exaggerated descriptions of self-harm prevalence and sensational headlines that include NSSI, especially the method of self-injury
  5. Use non-stigmatizing language and avoid terms that conflate person and behavior (e.g. ‘cutter’)
  6. Ensure that online article comments are responsibly moderated

Social media is a different animal, however, and the team admitted as much. Still, they also provided guidelines for people who own and manage social media accounts and platforms, with a focus on prevention. They recommend including pop-ups that offer help or resources when certain self-harm trigger words are used. Additionally:

  • Post clear rules (e.g. no posting of triggering content, clear placement of trigger warnings)
  • Post clear response guidelines for individuals interacting with other users’ posts and easily activated flagging options so that clearly damaging or stigmatizing responses can be quickly identified and removed
  • Utilize robust human and/or machine moderation protocols aimed at quickly identifying and responding to posts that breach platform guidelines
  • Apply meaningful consequences for repeat offenders (e.g. removal from the platform)
  • Regularly update guidelines, site moderators and/or algorithmic responses to incorporate new and emerging knowledge about relevant posting trends

In 2019 Instagram began blurring images of self-harm after the death of a 14-year-old girl. Mighty contributor Hannah wrote about that decision. “Maybe if Instagram’s pop-up simply gave links to websites that provide information and opportunities to chat confidentially to someone, then we can use the internet to help. It’s not a perfect solution by any means, but we have to start somewhere,” she said.

There are certain times of the year when conversations around suicide and self-harm increase, including World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10), World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10), and Mental Health Awareness Month (May). Widespread dissemination and use of these guidelines may help with more informed, healthy and helpful coverage for those who need to read or see it.

If you or a loved one is struggling with self-injury, visit The Mighty’s Guide to Understanding Self-Harm.

Header image via metamorworks/Getty Images

Originally published: February 5, 2021
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