Suicide contagion phenomenon highlights importance of sensitive media reporting

January 17, 2019 - 3:01 PM
Reporting on suicide Interaksyon
The reporting of Razorback drummer Brian Velasco's passing was scrutinized on social media. (Facebook/Brian Velasco)

Local media reports on the death of Razorback drummer Brian Velasco were scrutinized for being careless and insensitive toward the victim and also for possibly contributing to a phenomenon called “suicide contagion.”

The suicide contagion phenomenon is described by the Reporting on Suicide website

“Suicide Contagion, or ‘Copycat Suicide,’ occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide,” the article said.

“More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage,” it added.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness explained that sensationalized stories involving celebrities most likely encourage individuals who are struggling with mental illness to do the same.

“Seeing sensationalized headlines and reporting about a celebrity who ended their life can make a person who’s already struggling believe that they can do it, too. That “it’s okay.” That “it’s easy.” And not only that but learning the method of how a person died by suicide shows how to do it—what “works,” writer Laura Greenstein said.

She cited that when celebrated actor Robin Williams died in 2014, suicide rates have increased by 32 percent months after.

“In other words, suicide is usually the result of a multitude of factors—and the media’s irresponsible reporting can be one of them,” Greenstein said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC found certain aspects of news coverage that promote suicide contagion.

These include detailed descriptions of the suicide act, repetitive or excessive coverage of the event and wording that suggest suicide is a tool or coping mechanism.

According to the International Journalists’ Network, journalists are often at risk of the suicide contagion.

“There is also the risk of overlooking statements and information that would further add stigma and feelings of shame for those surviving the loss and those more susceptible to self-harm,” writer Cristina Bedei said.

Majority of the articles on the deaths of Williams, fashion designer Kate Spade and TV host Anthony Bourdain in recent years were deemed as irresponsible and insensitive.

In the Philippines, local media outlets also have a bad record of “careless reporting” according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

There are free guidelines available online on writing about suicide from journalism organizations, the World Health Organization and other suicide prevention websites.

“The media have a significant role in raising awareness and educating the public about the complexity of suicide, and can encourage the vulnerable and those at risk of suicide to seek help instead of encouraging them to imitate the methods of, and to even use the same sites as, completed suicides,” the CMFR said.

The Department of Health recorded 2,550 cases of suicides in 2012.

The country has its own suicide prevention program provided by the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation.

If you, or someone you know, are thinking about suicide, these are their landline numbers that can be reached to get help:

(02) 804-HOPE (4673),
0917 558 HOPE (4673)
2919 (toll-free number for all GLOBE and TM subscribers)