Psychologists can help newspaper and television reporters report on suicides in a responsible manner, preventing suicide "contagion"--the proliferation of copycat suicides--said psychologist Daniel Romer, PhD, at a session at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.
Romer, research director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center, has collaborated with researchers at his center, Columbia University and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to study the media's effects on suicide rates. They have found that the media likely played a role in approximately 10 percent of suicide deaths of people younger than 25--either by giving youths the idea to commit suicide or by providing youths already contemplating suicide with information about a specific method.
To counteract such effects, Romer encouraged psychologists to take two courses of action:
When interviewed about a suicide, encourage responsible coverage. Refer reporters to the 2001 guidelines, "Reporting in Suicide: Recommendations for the Media," available from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org. Give fact-oriented quotes and stress that treatable mental health problems underlie many suicides, Romer advised.
Write to newspapers and television news outlets about misguided stories on suicide. Explain that including details about the method of a suicide, signaling suicide in the headline, printing photos of a suicide victim and glorifying the act can encourage readers and viewers to follow through on suicidal thoughts.
Romer provided several examples of problematic reporting, such as a newspaper article about a couple's suicide after going broke over a $300-a-day drug habit and being evicted from their apartment. A source in the article--titled "Loving couple chose death on the tracks"--described their suicide as a "Romeo and Juliet thing." Not only did such language romanticize the couple's deaths, but it also failed to address the role of drug abuse, Romer said.
However, some reporters do produce more thoughtful pieces, he added. For example, Romer cited another newspaper article titled "Grim reminder on mental illness" that recounted a prominent executive's suicide after a year of depression. The reporter noted that depression is a factor in suicide and emphasized that shame and stigma lead many executives to avoid treatment.
"You can help them understand that they can do a better job," Romer said.
--D. SMITH BAILEY
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