October 10, 2014

Changing the Message about Suicide

EDC is helping to change some common narratives about suicide.

On the evening of April 25, 2013, viewers of KSL TV in Salt Lake City were presented with a different kind of local news program. For 30 uninterrupted minutes, the station ran a special about a largely undiscussed issue: suicide.

Breaking the Silence on Suicide was a program with purpose. Utah has the one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, and many high schools were struggling to comprehend the tragic loss of students who had died by suicide.

“The impetus of the special was that a lot of people were asking us to do something, because nobody knew how to talk about suicide,” says Candice Madsen, one of the producers of the special. “As members of the media, we realized that we needed to take responsibility for this issue and figure out a way to cover it.”

The program was a huge success, inspiring constructive community discussions about suicide and leading to a surge in calls to the Utah suicide and crisis hotline. It also represented a new way for the media to talk about suicide—one that emphasized prevention, resilience, support, and recovery for those at risk. It’s a component that Jerry Reed, who directs the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) at EDC, believes is often missing from media coverage of the issue.

“We need to begin reporting on suicide prevention, not only suicide,” he says. “The media wants to cover suicide responsibly and sensibly. So part of that messaging has to be that suicide is preventable.”

A new conversation

Changing the way the media covers suicide and suicide prevention is an area that EDC and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, whose secretariat is operated by EDC, are directly addressing.

Madsen and more than 20 other journalists recently joined experts in suicide prevention for a three-day workshop titled Covering Suicide and Mental Health. Held at EDC’s Washington, D.C., office, the workshop was sponsored by the Action Alliance, Poynter Institute, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, SPRC, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Reingold, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The goal of the workshop was to help working journalists understand how to report on suicide in a way that was not only accurate but also helpful for people at risk. Speakers offered the reporters an in-depth look into health data about suicide and mental health, the veracity of popular narratives around suicide, and methods for telling stories that were neither sensationalizing nor trivializing.

Madsen says that what she learned during the sessions challenged her notions of why people die by suicide and which members of the population are most at risk.

“I was surprised at what I took away from the Institute,” says Madsen. “The storylines we keep producing on suicide may not match up with what’s actually occurring.”

Working with the media is only one part of the Action Alliance’s two-part strategy to shape the public conversation about suicide toward messages that promote hope, help seeking, and recovery. The other component of this ongoing effort is the Action Alliance’s recently released Framework for Successful Messaging, a website that aims to help suicide prevention practitioners and others who are communicating to the public about suicide to create messages that are effective, safe, positive, and aligned with best practice guidelines. And earlier this year, the Action Alliance also signed onto the Entertainment Industries Council’s TEAM Up Social Media Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention, which provides guidance for entities that use social media to talk about suicide and mental health.

Changing the conversation about suicide is about more than just telling accurate stories, says Reed. It’s about saving lives, too.

He cites media coverage of Robin Williams’ recent death by suicide as a positive example of how the conversation is improving. Along with many touching tributes to Williams, newspapers and television stations ran stories that discussed mental illness, explained the warning signs for suicide, and offered information about how to get help. That information mattered—the number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), doubled in the week after Williams’ death.

“We’re just getting out of the box with this effort. Embracing a hopeful narrative that raises awareness, emphasizes prevention, and promotes help seeking is an important part of the story,” says Reed. “And over time, as we see those in need receiving help, then the newsrooms will own a piece of that success.”