Reporting suicide: how not to kill your readers

Yesterday, as I went to work, news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead in his flat in a suspected suicide. Today, as I woke up, the UK newspaper front pages were being released on Twitter.

The Sun and the Metro have decided to go with details of how Robin Williams killed himself, while the Mail and the Mirror focussed on the reasons why. (The Mail Online goes into excruciating detail on the methods Williams used, but does so in the body copy of an article.) All four are cheerfully ignoring the Samaritan’s guidelines on media reporting of suicide, which cite evidence that “Vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”

Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.

The reason the media isn’t supposed to talk about methods used is because that knowledge can turn someone who is passively suicidal into someone with an active plan. Knowing the distances dropped, the ligatures used, the medication taken, the blades employed, all of these things can give a suicidal person the knowledge of how to actually do the deed, how to go about taking their thoughts from the realm of the hypothetical into the realm of the real.

Of course, if they want, they can just Google that information, but that requires an act of will on their part; there’s a barrier that acts as another check, a moment where someone might look at what they are doing and consider other possibilities. Google also places helpline numbers prominently in its search results, which is more than some media manages in its reporting. (Side note: there is a story to be written about what changed in September 2010.) Plastering that knowledge all over every newspaper someone sees on their walk to work, in their local supermarket, in their train carriage, negates that barrier completely. It says: here is how you successfully kill yourself.

Even if they don’t contain step-by-step instructions on how to kill yourself, a wall of front pages tying suicide to a specific cause lends justification to a suicidal person’s internal logic that says suicide is a rational response. Suicidal thoughts are, for many people, a temporary problem; distracting yourself from them is a valid and sensible response, and sometimes the only way to stop yourself acting on them. It’s hard to maintain that distraction when a celebrity dies in this way; it’s harder still when the media seems to buy into the idea that money troubles, for example, are a reason for suicide. There is, inevitably, a search for meaning, and a desire to rationalise what’s happened, but reductionist and intrusive stories hurt the families of those who have died by telling them, in effect, that there might have been something they could have changed. They also tell suicidal readers that there are good reasons to die, sometimes; they reinforce the grim logic of acute depression. You can do this even with the most gentle, most well-meaning attempts to memorialise someone’s life.

The flip side of the media response is a slew of articles tying Robin Williams’ comedic genius inextricably to his depression and struggles with addiction. But he was brilliant despite his mental illness, not because of it. We search desperately in cases like this for a spark of hope, a positive spin, and find it in “divine madness”: the idea that his genius could only exist alongside his sadness. But without his brilliance, the madness would remain, and without his madness, the brilliance might have shone so much more brightly. You can be a genius without being depressed, and generally those without major chronic illnesses get a lot more done and have longer lives. There is a strange ambiguity about the “divine madness” narrative that feeds in, at lower levels, to anxieties about getting treatment. What if, without the depression, I am no longer me? What if I lose my creative spark? What if I lose the last of what makes life possible?

But the onus is still on us, the mentally ill, to seek treatment despite our (not always unfounded) fears that it might not work and might even harm us. We are told to talk about depression more, when talking is just about the last thing a depressed person wants to or feels able to do, and when most people aren’t interested in listening. We’re told to seek help, when in reality that help is often unavailable. The last time I needed serious therapy, it took 12 months for an appointment to become available; that was before the current crisis. I cannot imagine I would be able to negotiate the barriers to NHS assistance if I were suicidal in London this morning, even in my position of relative wealth, insight and access. But it’s entirely plausible that Robin Williams did manage to get the help he needed, and it just wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough for a lot of people. A lot of people die despite excellent care. We need more research, we need more treatment options, we need a revolution in mental healthcare. What we get are front pages that make our illnesses worse.

Fundamentally, the media doesn’t care about the guidelines. It doesn’t care about the people they’re meant to protect. Mentally ill people who die come in two types: the talented and brilliant, for whom death is an inevitable part of their brilliance, and the poor and underprivileged, whose deaths are irrelevant except where they interact with an existing story. The media doesn’t care about our deaths, unless we’re famous, and then it will pore over every gruesome detail regardless of how that might affect those of us still living, still struggling, still reading the news and still fighting for hope every day. What does it matter, after all, if a few more people succeed in killing themselves in the next few weeks? They were depressed. There was nothing anyone could have done.

35 thoughts on “Reporting suicide: how not to kill your readers

  1. Do you mean “The media” or do you mean some tabloid newspapers who are shamelessly trying to sell more copies? Careful not to tarnish the reputation of all with the actions of some. However mostly spot on, and as for ABC hovering over the family house with a helicopter…!

    • Honestly, I mean the media as a generic entity; there are exceptions, of course, but the most-read news organisations in the country and the world are happy to go ahead and flout these guidelines, and really I don’t see much point in No True Scotsmanning. I’d like to think I work for a news organisation that tries to get it right, but I don’t think we’re above criticism either at times like this.

  2. “We search desperately in cases like this for a spark of hope, a positive spin, and find it in ‘divine madness': the idea that his genius could only exist alongside his sadness. But without his brilliance, the madness would remain, and without his madness, the brilliance might have shone so much more brightly.”

    David Wong over on Cracked would appear to disagree. In his article “Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves” he presents a consistent correlation between humour and depression or suicidal thoughts. He proposes that humour originates as a kind of defense mechanism to protect the self from feelings of ostracism – if people laugh at you, then you’ve at least got a reaction out of them – and develops into an uncomfortable persona which you have to maintain in order to continue presenting a sane face to others but which feeds on your own pain as a human being.

    I won’t claim that you *can’t* have comedic geniuses without secret inner turmoils, but I think it does the man a disservice to deny what happened to him when a casual survey turns up a dozen examples of people going through the same thing.

    • I’d agree that there may be a link; however, much like Sylvia Plath, I suspect it’s much easier for funny people to work when they’re not depressed. There are certainly a lot of people with secret inner turmoils who aren’t Robin Williams, and I think it does them a disservice when the media focusses on the rare mentally ill people who can make an asset of their illnesses without mentioning the many millions who don’t and can’t. And that’s even assuming that Williams would have called it an asset; it looks to have lead to his death, which is not normally a feature of something you want in your life.

      • As someone who has campaigned for mental health awareness and involvement in service design and delivery by people with experience of mental health conditions I am in awe of your ability to articulate this.

        • Agreed! As someone with a mental illness it only took 35 years to get appropriate assistance. Great article and much appreciated.

        • I agree. I have shared this blog with countless colleagues and stakeholders over the last two days. Thank you for sharing this with the world.

  3. Thank you for this, it is a lot of what I have been wanting to say but not been able to find the words.

    The ‘divine madness’ narrative also cuts another way, I think, by making those of us who just get the crappy bits even more, well, crappy.

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  6. Thanks for writing this, it is sensible, sensitive and reasoned. It is the last thing I plan to read on how or why Robin Williams ended his life. I am grateful for your frankness also, it helps that you are willing to put yourself into the frame in this context.

  7. When I saw the details coming out about Mr. Williams’ death, I thought immediately of the suicides at Bridgend. It’s unfortunate that the media feel the need to be so explicit about a famous person’s suicide. Not only does it likely compound the sorrow of friends and family to have the details made public; it also, as you point out, serves as a blueprint for some people to go from thinking about suicide to actually doing it.

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  10. Thank you. I’m in another country, but I also had trouble getting help with debilitating depression and suicidal inclinations. Luckily I had savings to pay for private care – but that is running out.

  11. You are right sadly. For me thoughts of suicide had moved into a box labelled ‘not an option’ and gone into the attic. I’ve not been troubled by them for some time. I’m very far away from my lowest point but the recent coverage has reopened the sodding box and the thoughts with it.

  12. I agree that’s it’s incredibly irresponsible to report the details of the “how” in such cases but I don’t believe the problem is that it provides a “blueprint”. The issue is that with someone so famous and revered reporting what he did risks legitimising suicide in the mind of someone who was, up to that point, undecided.

    Plenty of studies demonstrate the linked increase in suicides and even fatal car crashes in the vicinity of local news reporting of suicides. Seeing that some else has made that choice can lead others to feel that it’s the answer and that’s why those papers should be ashamed of themselves. Report his life and the impact he had while alive rather than going into unnecessary details of his devastating passing.

  13. People criticise the journalists for dumbing complicated issues down but at the same time make sweeping generalisations about ‘the media’ as you have done here. Having worked at Bridgend’s local paper I’m all too aware of the sensitivities involved in reporting suicide. People seem to forget that there are thousands of responsible journalists in the media that do their job. Like it or not, Robin Williams’ death was huge news and by suggesting that there is a ‘correct’ way to report it clouds the issue and almost makes it even more of a taboo.

    The media’s best qualities appear when reporters probe and investigate. So instead of pulling umpteen Twitter tributes together why not pose the question. Why did he think there was no other option? Why does commit suicide?

    I agree that lots of the national tabloid reporting was both insensitive and unwise but would it have made it into print in local or regional newspapers? Not a chance.

  14. Mary, thank you for the article. I read it with much interest but perhaps there are more readers who would like some pointers: what can we do for someone depressed? You say talking about the depression is not the preferable thing? Do I understand correctly? If yes, how can we help someone, now or in future?

    • Hi Astrid, I’d recommend taking a look at the Samaritans’ media guidelines if you’re in the UK; other international mental health charities also have excellent guides available. In short, promote the life not the death, avoid suggesting reasons for suicide, especially avoid details of methods, and if a detail isn’t relevant to furthering a reader’s understanding, don’t publish it.

    • I have severe clinical depression; and I find it best when people merely acknowledge my words; that I am saying I am depressed. don’t ask why, suggest “fun” things, and helpful tips. Just tell the depressed person you are sorry they are going through this right now, and share what you personally know, if asked, briefly. Some people just want to be recognized as a human without presenting a precise of their lives accomplishments in order to feel that they have achieved worth. If you can’t relate at all, don’t try to “help” if you don’t feel it. be honest, yet kind. Thank you

  15. I love your article and like others, am impressed with how well you have written it. In your article and in some of the comments people say that finding help is often difficult. I had a friend in the UK that was finding “help” but was made to feel worse by the so called experts that were supposed to be helping her.

    For anyone who is struggling with a “mental illness”, I recommend you do some research on the Three Principles. There is a ton of information online. It is a simple and powerful message that helps people find the well-being that is inside them. It highlights the cause of all conditions and experiences in a way that is very easy to understand. Once people start to recognize how it is that things work, it changes their relationship to how they perceive their life.

    http://www.sydneybanks.org
    http://www.3pgc.org
    http://www.threeprinciplesmovies.com

  16. A brilliant article, Mary. I always had opinions on the sensationalist way in which such things are reported, particularly by the tabloid press. These were only reinforced when I saw how sensitively our local press handled the reporting of my father’s death.

    Of course, there are wider issues with such poorly-thought-out reporting.

    In addition to the ‘copycat’ element of it, the nature of how someone has died simply is not relevant to the wider public. Assumptions can be made, of course, but where and how Robin Williams chose to end his life are simply not relevant to people outside of the family. If there is a need to ‘clarify’ that it wasn’t as a result of illness, murder, etc etc then surely it is suffice to merely point out that someone ‘took their own life’, without giving further detail.

    This has particular repercussions where the family of the deceased includes younger people. A family may choose to protect those people from the finer detail of a story – the means, the location – but in a world where stories or imagery can be in millions of homes within seconds, the family’s ‘right’ to managing that flow of information can be taken out of their hands by a media that has no benefit in reporting it, other than to fill column inches, or fill time. That Robin Williams’s daughter, Zelda, has been targeted on Twitter is just one, disgraceful example of how the dissemination of needless detail dressed up as ‘news’ provides little that is positive, and so much that is negative.

  17. Hi Mary. It’s been many moons since I hired you as a junior reporter on the jolly old Eastern Daily Press, and I’m delighted you’ve carved out such an illustrious career.

    But I think you’re wrong to tar all media with the same brush when it comes to reporting the Robin Williams suicide. Your piece doesn’t mention Clause Five of the Editors’ Code of Practice – introduced as a direct result of the Bridgend affair – which says “when reporting suicides, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used”.

    If you feel strongly enough about it, you should complain to the PCC/IPSO citing that clause, but in my judgement, media did stay the right side of that line. Either way, it could lead to an interesting adjudication. The Samaritan’s booklet offers some sound advice, but it’s the Code that newspapers and other mainstream media need to adhere to.

    Anyway, rant over! Sincere best wishes,

    Paul.

    • Hi Paul – and thanks! You’re perhaps right that I should have used the phrase “the national and international media”, as I don’t think this would have flown at a regional paper.

      In terms of the PCC code, the Mail Online for one lists the ligature and the blade used as well as the posture he was found in; if that doesn’t count as excessive detail, god knows what does. In addition, I don’t think the code draws the line in the right place given the evidence about suicide contagion. That’s leaving aside the many issues with expecting national newspapers to adhere to the code when it’s been widely proven over the last few years that they don’t; there’s little public trust in the protection offered by the PCC any more.

      Hope that goes further towards explaining my position!

  18. Thank you for your insightful article. As a depressive, I have found that most people turn away when you ask for help. I begged my family for understanding and help and they turned their backs on me. I threatened suicide, as a last desperate plea for help, and I haven’t heard from my family since. Its been a year now and I live because I had no other choice. I have 3 children who I am raising on my own. Sometimes in life there are simply no choices. And when you are desperate the only people to turn to are professionals. At lease some therapists and doctors understand, and others who suffer with mental illness themselves.

  19. No agenda from me, I simply came across this link and think the article is absolutely brilliant. It puts into words what many of is think.

  20. As a person who has had depression and ptsd for over 20 years now, I can honestly say, I agree with this author, 100 percent. I also agree with the total lack of support. 12 months on a waiting list, you got lucky. try 26 months, and that is with 5 letters from 3 GP;s,
    it took writing to not only the head of mental health for my county, but my local MP and one too the local press. I was seen 3 days after the letter arrived to my MP. 14 sessions out of 18, and then after being diagnosed with severe PTSD, after my time with a CBT specialist finished, NOTHING, I have now given up with my secondary treatment I was supposed to be receiving post CBT (General therapy to go over trauma)People with mental health issues, especially non combatants with PTSD (I feel for service personal, but you get WAY more help and understanding than Joe public does with the condition ( from the general public anyway).
    They need to start mixing the military with the civilians, if money issues are to blame, because when you are sick mentally, everyday counts, happy to stick us on crazy pills, which is a band aid for a bullet wound, but anything substantial (Would help if people in government would not take the mickey with expenses,),
    Now I am a big guy, who can be very violent, which is not how I started out in life, so I am now worried to leave the house, for fear of hurting someone who sets off my PTSD,-which I has happened before, four doorman in my old town and seven lads on a holiday, took a chunk out of someone’s face that day, not proud of it, but that is PTSD for me, I either get panic attacks or I drop people, which as someone who hates violence, sickens me, but I am not in control of myself when it happens, a wall comes up and I am stuck behind it, my fight or flight is all messed up. I should be recieving extra therapy and some support, instead I am doing it alone or with the aid of a few friends who understand me and care about me.
    The NHS I hear you cry,If you have not got it into your skulls yet,but the NHS is completely underfunded and over managed, too many over paid chiefs not enough under paid Indians. And the Tories couldn’t give a tinkers chuff about the mentally ill, the way they have slashed services and benefits to help out there banking buddies has shown us all that in the UK.
    Now on the topic of journalism, most are hacks, a few are decent, caring people who are doing the job for positive and decent reasons, they seem to be the small minority, the rest are either Neo-Nazi thugs with Biro’s (you know, people who work for the Sun or the Mail) or failed Authors. So of-course most of them want to do completely the wrong thing, it sells papers and makes them more money. until strict laws are bought into place governing the handling of suicides and major tragedies, in the press, we with mental health issues need to be mindful (as if we are not already) about what we watch and listen too. And for me personally,seeing as Robin Williams was a personal role model of mine, having the same issues I do, ADAHD(yes UKIP, it does exist, keep on that track and someone is going to sue you and WIN!), depression, anger issues, addiction issues, but he was bipolar, where as I have PTSD, not that it matters, and the same sense of humour and compassion.
    So, if not for my small support network, those daily nudges my mind gives me to the after life, would have been strongly listened too, instead of ignored, and joined my comedy hero. Please don’t for those with no support networks. Make a pigging nusiance of yourself, write to your MP, kick up a stink (be it a polite one)with your GP, get them onside and they will be glad to aid you, either that or get a valid 2nd opinion, which are scrutinised by a board of doctors. If you are having trouble getting out the house( which I relate to 1000%) do something you enjoy (that is not going to harm you) in the safety of your own home/flat/ domicile. Be proactive with fitness, something I am starting to get back in to, it helps to have an active body and helps to relive depression, even if just for the time you are hurling your guts up at the start. And give yourself challenges and rewards, something I am also starting to do, baby steps people, don;t take on the world, at least not for the first year or so anyway, we don’t want a relapse, and last is diet, I have been eating a lot more fruit and veg, it is also starting to help my mood, immensely.
    If like me you are using certain things as a way to self medicate, fine, but lower your amounts on a monthly basis and look to eventually quitting, it is, like the med’s they are so happy to shove us on, it is just a crutch. Won;t help us in the long term. For anyone with issues the same as mine, please don’t give up, that means the bastards who helped make us the way we are, have won, and that really pisses me off. If this helps one person, you have made my millennium, and I mean it, we are not alone, the one saving grace to us, with mental health problems, it is colourless, genderless and has no religion, so, remember that when looking for health, leave any -ism’s you have, and get help where you can. I do not know you, but I love you, in the most compassionate way possible, I deal with it too on a daily basis and YOU ARE NOT ALONE:)
    Too any sick little ”troll’s” or ”hater’s” Don’t like what I have to say, I don’t care, this is good therapy for me and it might just help someone.

  21. You went into details about suicide in your article; your a blogger and you publish, is there not an element of opportunism even with your article, however well meaning?

    • I deliberately avoided describing methods, and stuck to listing them. And I wrote this because I was angry, and because I felt it needed saying. Wasn’t really expecting the huge response, but obviously it has struck a chord with enough people to have been a worthwhile thing to write.

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  24. A friend pointed out, and I quote; “I wonder whether the whole ‘tortured genius’ narrative has the potential to make depressed people who don’t have some kind of amazing natural talent feel inadequate.”

What do you think?