In the second in our series of blogs with Samaritans, Lorna Fraser, Executive Lead of their Media Advisory Service, looks at some of the specific challenges journalists face when reporting on suicides by young people and some of the additional sensitivities and risks which can make young people a particularly vulnerable audience.
When a young person’s life is tragically cut short by suicide, the impact is catastrophic – completely devastating families and affecting the lives of many others who knew them.
While there is clearly a public interest in reporting youth suicides and suicide clusters, it’s important for journalists to be aware that young people who are affected by suicide – for example a death at their school or university – are at increased risk of suicide contagion.
Studies have shown that people who are bereaved by suicide are at increased risk of suicide themselves, and, as I mentioned in my last blog, a large body of evidence exists which links certain types of media reporting to an increase in suicide rates.
Deaths of young people by suicide are more likely to be reported
Suicides by young people under the age of 25 account for 11% of all suicide deaths in the UK. However, these deaths are far more extensively covered in the news compared to other age groups and the number of articles focusing on suicides and suicide attempts involving young people remains disproportionate to the number of incidents (33% of a sample of suicide articles monitored by Samaritans).
Our data also shows that stories covering youth suicides are frequently reported in a more sensational way. This could include romanticised language, lots of photographs of the young people or person who has died, outpourings of grief and memorials, and often, intense speculation on possible causes.
Young people can be especially vulnerable
For young people, the risk of influencing suicidal behaviour is greater for a number of reasons, including them being:
Give extra consideration
Samaritans asks journalists and editors to give extra consideration to reports covering suicidal behaviour by young people including attempts, deaths and inquests.
In addition, language and tone are important. Carefully consider the inclusion of comments posted on social media sites, as these can sometimes inadvertently romanticise suicidal behaviour. Examples include: “Heaven’s gained another angel” and “You’re at peace now”.
Extra care should be taken around speculation of causes. For example, when a suicide death is reported and bullying is cited as the cause, it’s helpful to consider the impact on other young people who could be experiencing bullying and may feel hopeless about their own situation – stories including how a young person took their life, lots of photographs, outpourings of grief, revenge messages directed at bullies – can increase the likelihood of others identifying with the person who has died and could lead to suicide contagion.
It’s particularly important to be aware of the risk of inadvertently promoting the idea of achieving something through death which didn’t seem possible in life. This could encourage the idea of suicide to another young person who is vulnerable and make it feel like a suitable option for them too.
Reducing the risk
With a young audience in mind, Samaritans’ advises media to:
This is not about censoring or an attempt to brush the topic of suicide under the carpet. Samaritans does not believe that suicides by young people, or indeed any age group, should not be covered in the press. It is simply about giving extra consideration about how these stories are covered because of the extra vulnerabilities of young people.
The media can raise awareness
The media can play an important role in raising awareness of the issues surrounding suicidal behaviour and supporting national efforts to reduce the number of suicides in the UK.
Highlighting the importance of talking and encouraging people to reach out and seek help can help to reduce suicides and there is a growing area of literature which suggests that responsible reports of suicide, such as stories which promote suicide prevention messages and encourage people to seek help, can reach out to people and help prevent suicides.
The media help raise awareness of the issues surrounding suicide, highlighting:
A powerful way to spread these vital messages can be through real life stories of people who have reached a difficult time in their life, but have managed to seek help and come through it, such as this short video featuring Georgia, a young person who called Samaritans’ helpline. This can be used in stories about suicide.
You could also consider including Samaritans’ details at the end of any report. People can call Samaritans for free any time on 116 123, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of their nearest branch.
Our Media Advisory team is also available to offer bespoke advice and journalists can contact us on 0208 394 8377/020 3874 9186, out-of-hours on 07850 312224 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have Media Guidelines for the reporting of suicide and IPSO have further guidance for editors and journalists and information for the public on reporting deaths and inquests.