If you feel triggered by this article’s content, please contact a suicide prevention hotline immediately:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-8255
The Samaritans (UK) can be reached at 116 123
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 (US), 686868 (Canada), or 85258 (UK)
This month, September, is National Suicide Prevention Month in the United States.
Alice Hendy lost her brother, Josh, when he was only 21, to suicide on November 25, 2020.
One of my closest friends, Erika Elkington, suicided on August 6, 2015, a month shy of her 30th birthday.
Neither Josh nor Erika “committed” suicide. They were victims of psychological ailments we don’t fully understand which resulted in their deaths by suicide. Despite the growing arsenal of mental health and suicide prevention resources, no surefire method exists to prevent suicide.
For Alice, me, and the people we’re fortunate to collaborate with, one thing became clear: We needed more tools to combat suicide.
Ending one’s own life is neither straightforward nor easy. As survivors of suicide attest to, “attempting” is excruciating. Forty percent of deaths by suicide don’t occur on the first “attempt.” Most young victims suffer through multiple “attempts” prior to their death and in between, conduct research on how to self-harm. While much of the data related to suicide is obscured from our view (for example, we don’t know how many “attempts” typically occur prior to a victim’s death), we do know that every month,1.2 million people search the internet for instructions on how to suicide.
Prior to his death by suicide, Josh Hendy researched online how to end his life. Unfortunately, when his search engine’s results prompted him with a suicide prevention hotline number, he didn’t reach out.
Josh’s sister, Alice, founded the nonprofit, R;pple, with the singular purpose of intervening the moment a person initiates an online search for how to suicide. Alice and her team discovered that by replacing a single hotline number in an online search result with an engaging message of hope alongside multiple suicide prevention resources (accessible by text or voice), that they could increase the chance a person in crisis will stop searching and instead seek the professional help she, he, or they need.
An engaging message of hope is a form of pattern interruption, an external factor that breaks a cycle, or mental pattern in which a person is stuck. Pattern interruption has been found to be extremely effective at pulling a person in crisis out of a downward mental spiral.
The innovative tool provides people with a voice, choice, empowerment and control at a time when they are most vulnerable.
Thanks to Google and Microsoft’s browser extension capability, this vision has become a reality. Download the R;pple Chrome and Edge extensions.
The Media Recommendations That Reduce Copycat Suicides
The way most of us have been conditioned to communicate about suicide is harmful, stigmatizing, and deters at-risk individuals from seeking the professional help they need. For example, the term “committed suicide” associates suicide with crime and sin given that they are other acts we “commit.” No one “commits” cancer. If we want to normalize caring for our mental health as we do for the rest of our bodies, we need to use more neutral language- for example, say that someone “died by suicide” or “suicided.”
Words and images matter in the fight against suicide. The way many news and entertainment media outlets depict highly-publicized suicides today leads to a 13% increase in national suicide rates according to a study conducted by the University of Vienna. Researchers from McGill University estimate this contagion effect, also referred to as “copycat suicides,” to be even higher, citing a 16% increase in suicides following Robin Williams’ death. Most shockingly, in the month following the release of a popular show about a teenage girl’s suicide, the suicide rate among the show’s target audience- adolescents- increased by 29% according to researchers from The Ohio State University.
Each of us has the power to play an active role in saving lives. While the Recommendations were originally authored for media professionals, they’re equally applicable to how we as human beings communicate, and ultimately think, about suicide.
- Don’t share a person’s suicide method.
- Talk about suicide as you would any other terminal illness. It is not “committed.”
- Avoid blame or speculation. Root causes are more complex than we understand today.
- Include mental health and suicide prevention resources whenever possible because someone might need them.
- Don’t discuss the existence or contents of a suicide note.
- Never show or share images of a suicide.
- Don’t romanticize or glamorize suicide.
- Discuss suicide within the context of mental health because it is preventable.
- Resist the urge to oversimplify suicide. Instead, acknowledge known risk factors.
- Don’t sensationalize suicide.
Thanks to Dr. Dan Reidenberg, Managing Director of the nonprofit SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), the Recommendations are freely available on reportingonsuicide.org. Dr. Dan has made these Recommendations his life’s work: he co-edited the WHO’s Reporting on Suicide Recommendations, is the author of the U.S. Best Practice Recommendations for Media Reporting on Suicide and consults frequently with the media on reducing copycat suicides through their application.
Copycat suicides were first documented following the publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the 18th century, men who identified with the story’s protagonist, Werther, took their lives in the same fashion as the fictional character. Many left a copy of the book behind in lieu of a suicide note. This “Werther Effect” describes the increase in suicides following a highly publicized suicide of a real person or fictional character.
Fortunately, the Werther Effect has an antidote, the “Papageno Effect,” derived from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” in which the protagonist’s friends offer him alternate paths to conquer his mental anguish. As with the Werther Effect, this phenomenon isn’t limited to fiction; many people who contemplated or “attempted” suicide later thrive after getting the right help. The Papageno Effect demonstrates the power of mental health and suicide prevention resources to save someone’s life.
“Following implementation of guidelines for responsible media reporting on suicide in Vienna in 1987, the number of suicides and suicide attempts in the local subway system dropped by 80% (Etzersdorfer & Sonneck, 1998; Sonneck et al., 1994)”
Despite strong evidence in support of the Recommendations, including150 peer-reviewed publications, in a study of 1,700 articles, the Cisco Vancouver Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab found that the top four Recommendations had a meagre 3% adoption rate. A CDC study of 246 media reports of youth suicides in Santa Clara County found that the reports contained eight times more life-threatening than life-saving content.
NASR: News App for Suicide Reporting
The News App for Suicide Reporting functions similarly to a grammar-checker for adherence to the most impactful four Recommendations. The NASR AI was developed by the mental health professionals at SAVE and reportingonsuicide.org in collaboration with my partner-in-good, Dr. Annie Ying, a team of brilliant technologists and over 100 volunteers at Cisco, Executive Sponsor Sanjiv Patel and me. The app makes it easy for everyone, including news and entertainment media professionals, to communicate about suicide in a life-saving fashion.
The AI’s technical specs are included in our publication, “Reducing suicide contagion effect by detecting sentences from media reports with explicit methods of suicide”, which was accepted into Harvard’s 2021 AI for Social Good workshop.
“During my two decades of experience in data science and research, I have brought many AI innovations to life. Sometimes, seeing how AI can have the potential to do harm or take away jobs keeps me up at night – but this project really showcases that AI is a tool that can save lives! I’m so grateful to work with some of the brightest minds: Jen, Dr. Dan, my team at the Cisco Vancouver AI Lab (Dr. Shima Gerani, Riley Hun, Raphael Tissot and Artemio Rimando), and the Cisco volunteers.”
– Dr. Annie Ying
The Natural Language Processing (NLP)-based technology is free and easy to use: just type or paste suicide-related content into the text box at the bottom of the home page on reportingonsuicide.org, click the “Verify” button, and NASR will provide immediate feedback. If you missed a Recommendation, you can even edit your text and run NASR again.
NASR is also freely available to organizations who’d like to include it on their own web sites or even incorporate its functionality into their content creation and/or editorial tools. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the Fight
I hope you’ll join us in the fight against suicide by taking these steps today:
- Prioritize your own mental health!
- Download and install the R;pple Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge Extensions. If your region’s version isn’t yet available, you cna sign up to receive updates.
- Follow the Recommendations. Talk about suicide as you would any other physical illness.
- Read practical tips for coping with your, or another’s mental health crisis here: 11 Things You Need to Know About Mental Illness
On behalf of Alice, everyone who has lost someone to suicide, those who’ve selflessly dedicated themselves to suicide prevention, and me, thank you for taking action!