How to Write About Suicide
One of the most effective ways we can reduce stigma around mental health is to talk about our emotional well-being. But when discussing mental health publicly, such as on social media or in a blog post, how you talk about it can either help or harm your audience. This distinction is never more crucial than when mentioning suicide.
When a public suicide occurs, and those who report on it or discuss it online aren’t careful with their messaging, it can cause what’s known as “suicide contagion.” Contagion is a phenomenon in which additional suicides happen after the coverage of a suicide in the media. Seeing suicide sensationalized or even glamorized can make those who are already having suicidal thoughts feel like suicide is inevitable, common, or even the right escape from their pain. There are ways to talk about suicide openly, while being cautious not to risk suicide contagion.
Here are some tips on how to write about and discuss suicide.
- Use the phrase “died by suicide.” This term may seem awkward to use when you’re used to hearing other phrases. But it avoids using words like “committed,” which some people feel blames the victim, or “succeeded,” which suggests that an uncompleted suicide is somehow a failure.
- If you’re planning to use an image, use a portrait of the person before they died rather than loved ones who are grieving, or the scene of their death.
- Emphasize that suicide is preventable, and include information on warning signs and how to talk to someone in your life who may be at risk.
- Perhaps most importantly, include resources. This would include a number for a suicide hotline and maybe local resources where someone could go to receive help. Call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (The Lifeline is available 24/7, 365 days a year). Additionally, check out these local Massachusetts resources if you or a loved one are living in the state and need assistance.
- Don’t sensationalize. It’s important not to dramatize any statistics on suicide or how the person died. Discussing the scope of the issue is crucial, but using words like “skyrocketing” to describe suicide rates can be sensationalistic. Using headlines that focus on the fact that someone died, rather than how that person died, is also helpful in not sensationalizing the suicide.
- Don’t discuss the method of suicide in the body of the article or blog post either.
- Don’t discuss the contents of a note, if left by the person who died by suicide, as it can seem to justify suicide or legitimize those thoughts leading up to it.
- Discuss suicide as a public health concern, not a crime. You can accomplish this by talking to suicide prevention experts rather than first responders, and being careful about the language you use.
- Don’t focus on one factor in the person’s life that “drove” them to suicide. Most often, suicide is the result of a variety of factors, including manageable mental health disorders that weren’t treated.
While it’s important to start a conversation about suicide and mental health, it’s even more important to make sure you’re having the right conversation. Bringing awareness to the topic is key to fighting the stigma of mental health disorders and suicide. Following these tips can help ensure you make a positive impact while writing about suicide.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2017 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.