Suicidal Behaviour and the Media: Findings from a systematic review of the research literature

Summary conclusions drawn by Kathryn Williams & Keith Hawton of the Centre for Suicide Research, Department of Psychiatry, Oxford University.

A review of 90 studies of the impact of media portrayals of suicide in some 20 countries has given rise to the following conclusions:

  • To treat suicide as a ‘mystery’ is misleading; most people who die by suicide have been suffering from psychiatric illnesses, and this is consistently under-reported by the news media in many countries.
  • Responsible approaches to the portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the media can save lives. Voluntary restraints on reporting suicides by specific lethal methods have resulted in abrupt and statistically significant reductions in deaths by those methods. In contrast, providing a warning about the danger of certain medications, poisons or other methods of suicide may be helpful to most of the audience but send the opposite message – that these methods are effective (that is, lethal) – to depressed and suicidal people.
  • Highlighting risk factors and providing the telephone numbers of crisis lines can have positive effects, encouraging people to seek help.
  • There is considerable potential for innovative media presentations which communicate positive messages (for example, there is help available for those in suicidal crisis, and mental illness can be treated). Depicting celebrities or fictional characters dealing with their emotional distress in constructive ways is another way in which the media can promote life and hope. Such presentations would reflect the reality that most people who consider suicide never act upon their feelings, but find ways to solve their problems.
  • Nonetheless media portrayals can lead to imitative suicidal behaviour. There is compelling evidence of increases in suicidal behaviour after the appearance of news reports, fictional drama presentations on television and suicide manuals.
  • Certain aspects of media portrayals tend to increase the likelihood that imitative behaviour will occur. Of particular concern are:
    • news stories, fictional drama and suicide manuals that name or depict a method of suicide, especially when that method is lethal and readily available;
    • prominent and/or repetitive news coverage of suicide;
    • coverage of celebrities who take their own lives.
  • Imitation is more likely among audiences members who can identify with the suicide victim in some way; for example by age, gender or nationality.
  • Young people and elderly people appear to be more vulnerable that those in their middle years to media-related suicide contagion.
  • These findings support a number of theoretical explanations of how and why imitative suicide occurs. In turn these models predict that certain characteristics of media presentations will promote imitation; specifically:
    • portraying suicidal behaviour as a natural or understandable response to problems such as failure to achieve important goals, relationship difficulties or financial crises;
    • showing or implying that a person may be ‘rewarded;’ for suicidal behaviour, for example by achieving a reconciliation, gaining revenge or eliciting sympathy;
    • treating suicide as a tragic or heroic act by someone who apparently had everything to live for.