Media reporting of suicide: how harmful is it?

This article discusses suicide. Some readers may find it triggering.

Newspapers and websites are currently strewn with the debate over whether the suicide of a well known Coronation Street character could prompt “copycat” suicides. The Mirror seemed particularly happy to lead with it. But by reporting this fear, could the papers actually be adding to it?

Though I don’t watch the programme myself, from the reports it is clear that the storyline depicts Hayley, a woman suffering from the painful effects of terminal cancer, who follows a plan to take her own life and dies peacefully.

The way the media covers mental health can often be insensitive, but it rarely has a direct role in affecting the mental health of individuals. The phenomenon of “copycat” suicides, however, is one area where what the papers write really does have influence.

I’d like to run through the history and research of the area, what we can do to limit the risk, and why the storyline might or might not lead to “copycat” suicides.

The Werther Effect

A “copycat” suicide is an emulation of a recent, highly publicised suicide. The methods someone uses to take their own life will typically be the same as the original suicide, and clusters of suicides can occur.

The first reports of “copycat” suicides originated in response to a collection of deaths that followed the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. In the book, a love-stricken young man shoots himself with a pistol, an action which was then emulated by several young men in reality. The book was banned, and the term Werther effect coined.

The phenomenon has also been seen outside the western world. Due to spectacularly irresponsible reporting and an equally dismal lack of initiative from public health officials, the volcanic summit of Mount Mihara in Japan became a recurring venue for suicides. Until a fence was erected in the 1950s, people would throw themselves from a vantage point directly into the crater. Around 944 people jumped in 1933 alone.

Modern day

Thankfully, since then we’ve become more responsible in our journalism and we’ve also been able to use modern research techniques to further study how publicising a suicide can lead to further suicides.

Studies from Germany and Japan, amongst others, have suggested that rates rise most significantly in the week following a suicide being reported by the press.

In 2002, the analysis of a series of 42 studies was published. Media reports of celebrity suicides were found to be 14 times more likely to lead to “copycat” suicides than those about non-famous people. Reports of real suicides, as opposed to fictional suicides in films or television programmes, were found to be 4 times more likely to lead to deaths.

We also know that the more the media reports a story, the more likely it is to prompt further suicides, and that people of similar race and age to the deceased person have the biggest increase in risk.

And as might be expected, people with pre-existing mental health problems, particularly young people, are at highest risk. Researchers have hypothesised that social learning theory, in which we view other people doing things which seem rewarding or appropriate, and then copy them, might be a useful way of conceptualising things.

Limiting the risk

So what can journalists do to limit the potentially negative effect of reporting suicides?

Different countries have different codes of journalistic ethics on this issue. Norway, for example, advise that suicide and attempted suicide should “never, in general, be given any mention”.

We know that a very large proportion of people who take their own lives have a mental health problem. By highlighting the presence of the disorder in reports, and including information about help lines and support services, newspapers can reduce the risk of “copycat” events.

In fact, the World Health Organisation issued guidelines for media professionals in 2008, which goes into further detail but also issues bullet point advice:

  • Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide
  • Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
  • Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
  • Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
  • Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
  • Word headlines carefully
  • Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
  • Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
  • Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
  • Provide information about where to seek help
  • Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide

The Mirror, with its typically forthright headline and hyperbolic story, chooses to ignore at least three of these guidelines.

Every case on its merits 

In these situations, I doubt there will ever be a firm consensus of right or wrong.

So what about this case? Well, the story of Hayley is fictional, and clearly centres around a woman who is terminally unwell. As we’ve seen, fictional cases are less likely to lead to harm than real ones, and people of similar demographics to the case are at highest risk – so younger, fitter people might not be in harm’s way here.

However, the carelessly glib headlines and copious photos are only going to increase the risk, says the evidence. Also, describing the method is known to be a bad idea.

So is this just a harmless reaction to a popular programme, discussing a salient issue that everyone will know about already? Or is it exposing thousands of people to needless risk of suicide? I’m not sure.

If reading this article has led to you needing to talk to someone, The Samaritans are always available.  

About Alex Langford
I am a psychiatry trainee based in South East London. Before I went into psychiatry, I used to be a general medical doctor, and I also have a BSc in psychology. I'm particularly interested in improving the public face of psychiatry, evidence based medicine, teaching and patient rights. Don't mention cricket unless you've got the next fortnight free to discuss it.

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