Lyndsay Buckland: Media can help reduce suicides

Samaritans staff are always at the end of the phone. Picture: Jayne Emsley
Samaritans staff are always at the end of the phone. Picture: Jayne Emsley
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Preventing unnecessary deaths caused by suicide is high on the agenda of everyone working in mental health.

The reasons why someone chooses to take their own life are always complex and rarely due to one specific cause. And while the number of suicides in Scotland has fallen since the start of the millennium, there are still 16 every week.

Figures from the General Register Office for Scotland showed there were 830 probable suicides recorded in 2012, while other research shows Scotland has the highest rate of such deaths in the UK.

This week, the Samaritans held a meeting with journalists to explain the role the media plays in trying to reduce suicides, or at least not make the situation worse.

The problem lies in the fact that, it appears, some vulnerable people may be encouraged to take the devastating decision to attempt suicide after reading or hearing about other suicides in the media.

They may find a certain method of suicide attractive, particularly newer forms which have received attention in recent years. They may relate to the person in the story who has taken their own life. They may even find it appealing if a story is given particular prominence with a shrine-like montage of photos of the person in question.

With this in mind, the updated media guidelines published by the Samaritans give tips on what we can do to responsibly report suicides.

Some are common sense, such as don’t include too many details about how someone killed themselves or signpost readers to websites which might promote suicide. Language such as “commit suicide” should also be avoided – suicide is not illegal.

Other tips could prove more difficult to follow as journalists look for material to make their stories long enough. For example, the guidelines say reporters should avoid reporting the contents of any suicide note, and a story should not be given “undue prominence”.

The Samaritans accepts that its guidelines may not always be easy to follow and that journalists face a difficult balance between reporting a story in full and trying to avoid anything which could cause a new suicide.

But with research showing the impact media coverage of suicide can have, and the increased risk of copycat suicides, it is an issue we all have to take incredibly seriously.

No reporter would want to think something they have written has led to someone taking such a drastic step as killing themselves.

So next time you read a story about a suicide and wonder why it’s lacking a bit of detail, it could well be that these omissions are helping save a life.