According to the World Health Organization, close to 800,000 people die by suicide every year. Furthermore, for each suicide it is estimated that there are more than 20 suicide attempts. In the U.S., death by suicide has been growing at a rate of approximately 1.5-2% per year since 1999. In November 2019, the American Medical Association published a paper showing that the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the first time in history, and a major cause cited for this drop was death by suicide.
On the surface, reporting, blogging, posting on social media or talking about death by suicide may not seem like a life-saving or life-endangering task. Yet HOW an individual’s death by suicide is reported and discussed can be a contributing factor to whether the death will be followed by further tragedy and suicide. Ohio University recently reported that “typical news media and social media coverage of suicide has the potential to increase the risk for contagion, especially among at-risk individuals.” This and other research from around the world has consistently shown that how media reporting on a suicide makes a difference. Because there is an increased risk of deaths, best practice recommendations for media reporting on this topic have been created, although they have seen only moderate use and adherence to-date.
The life-saving guidelines, whose development was led and authored by Dr. Dan Reidenberg, available on reportingonsuicide.org, outline how each of us can take a proactive role in suicide prevention by changing the way we write and speak about the subject. Research released just last year by Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler quantifies the harm caused by today’s media reporting norms: A 13% increase in national suicide rates following media reports of high-profile deaths.
At their core, the suicide reporting guidelines center around key findings:
- At any given time, a portion of the population is struggling with mental illness and could be triggered into taking their own lives by how others talk about, report or view mental illness. With proper treatment, they have the potential to recover just as a person does from other life-threatening illnesses.
- Sharing, showing or describing the method of suicide is one of the most harmful triggers for those at risk. On the other hand, sharing that the person died by suicide can help bring attention (and with it, research and funding) to the public health crisis of suicide.
- Including education about suicide and resources for those at risk, such as a national Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255 in the U.S.) has a dual benefit of destigmatizing mental illness and providing those at risk with a lifeline when they may need it most.
- If we talk about mental illness and suicide in the same way we talk about other illnesses, more people will seek help, recover and survive. Terms like ‘committed suicide’ associate suicide with sinful and/or criminal activity whereas stories on individuals who have recovered from near death by suicide have been shown to be most helpful to others in a crisis. No one ‘commits cancer’; they die by it. And like cancer, treatment is available.
- Best practices for reporting on suicide challenge what many of us learned as best practices for reporting in general, or example, in the sharing of details about the person who died or the circumstances of their death. The best practices for reporting on suicide, on the other hand, advise us to hold back certain details for the sake of those at risk.
We at Cisco, SAVE, and The Erika Legacy Foundation are proud the unveil the public beta version of a data science tool to help not just reporters, but anyone talking about suicide to make a difference. The tool automatically screens whether text adheres to these four life-saving guidelines: Exclude suicide method; use appropriate language; avoid blame; and include education and help. We have focused our effort in working with mental health experts to conceptualize the tool as well as an initial version of the detection algorithm that can almost perfectly detect two of the guidelines. Immediate future work includes more sophisticated machine learning techniques to improve the accuracy of detection for the “exclude suicide method” guideline.