In an ever-changing world of media, entertainment, public service announcements and social media posts, messaging about suicide-related content depicting suicide prevention, intervention and postvention needs to be done responsibly and safely.
With key messages of strength, belonging, meaning, purpose and hope amidst life challenges and tragic events, news reports, fictional depictions and accounts in movies, public service announcements, social media, and television series can be instrumental in saving lives, promoting resilience, dispelling myths and encouraging help seeking.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention recommends and supports that Canadian media professionals, entertainment professionals, public service announcement creators and social media posters who are engaged in producing suicide-related content familiarize themselves with the relevant recommendations.
White, J. (2016). We Belong: Life Promotion to Address Indigenous Suicide. Discussion Paper. www.wisepractices.ca.
Numerous organizations and agencies worldwide have released recommendations for mainstream media, the content of which is largely synthesized. For a more detailed description of the rationale for these recommendations and their applications, see the Canadian Psychiatric Association Media recommendations for responsible reporting of suicide which are coauthored by journalism professionals and the third edition of Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health.
There is growing awareness that fictional depictions of suicide including television shows aimed at youth can have either a helpful or harmful impact, depending on the content. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention in the United States has released a brief list of 8 key recommendations aimed at the entertainment industry:
- Convey that suicide is a complex event with the intersection of many factors rather than a single event.
- Show that help is available.
- Portray characters experiencing suicidal thoughts who do not attempt to end their lives.
- Portray characters whom the viewer can relate to as lifelines (e.g ordinary person; people from marginalized communities).
- Avoid showing or describing the details of suicide methods.
- Use non-judgemental language.
- Consult with suicide prevention messaging professionals and people with personal experience.
- Depict the grieving and healing process of people who have been impacted by the loss of someone to suicide with compassion.
Public Service Announcements
There is limited research on the impact of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) related to suicide. For the time being, therefore, CASP recommends that creators of this content consider the information which has generally been provided in PSA worldwide:
- Encouraging people to speak openly about suicide.
- Indicating that the life of a suicidal person is important.
- Acknowledging the suffering that is associated with suicidal thoughts and the conditions that give rise to them.
- Emphasize that suicide is preventable.
- Highlight the devastating impact of a suicide death on the loved ones of those who have died.
- Information about support for people thinking about suicide including how to approach/offer help to someone and crisis resources such as a helpline or website.
(adapted from Ftanou M, Cox G, Nicholas A, Spittal MJ, Machlin A, Robinson J, Pirkis J. Suicide Prevention Public Service Announcements (PSAs): Examples from Around the World. Health Commun. 2017;32(4):493-501.)
Resiliency: Promote/depict that even with having had thoughts of suicide or made suicide attempts, people do go on to live meaningful lives.
Social Media Postings
There is increasing awareness that posting on social media can confer harm or protection for both the sender and receiver of messages communicating suicide-related thoughts or actions. The Australian National Centre for Youth Excellence in Mental Health has released a set of recommendations aimed primarily at youth who post suicide-related content on social media. However, this document would also be helpful to adults. Please keep in mind, each country has their own suicide crisis lines that should be referred to when advising someone on who to contact. The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides a listing of global suicide hotlines. Suicide Hotlines & Crisis Helplines | Free, 24/7 Chat, Text & Phone (findahelpline.com)
Key recommendations include:
- Posting online: considerations of the impact the message will have-going viral, permanency, monitoring the post, tips on self-care; examples of unsafe and unsafe content.
- Suicide prevention resources available through social media platforms; language and safety tips for discussing suicide online; sharing your lived experience: privacy concerns; potential impacts; safe sharing; safe language and/or graphics.
- Sharing concerns about someone impacted by suicide thoughts, attempts or a death by suicide: promoting direct communication; respecting the privacy of family/friends of someone who has died by suicide; the case for non-speculation.
- How to respond to suicide posts from a person at risk of suicide: self-care and boundaries; non-judgementality, caring, concern, privacy, asking direct questions, responding to an immediate risk.
The Association Québécoise de Prévention du Suicide (AQPS) has also written a guide for social media professionals to help identify and help people in distress they encounter online.
FREE Online Course for Responsible Reporting on Suicide for Journalists
Through lectures, readings, interactive exercises, and quizzes, the Responsible Reporting on Suicide for Journalists course aims to encourage journalists to contextualize suicide as a public health issue and prioritize public wellbeing over sensationalism. It builds upon the powerful work already done in this area by organizations such as the WHO, CDC, ReportingonSuicide.org, and others.
This course uses an online course format that is appealing and accessible to journalists and journalism students. It gives them opportunities to practice these skills through exercises and simulations developed by journalists to reflect real-life scenarios. The course is available worldwide on the site Coursera. It is free and can be completed at your own pace.