More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage regarding a death by suicide can increase the likelihood of additional suicide deaths in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage. Business leaders can learn from these media studies and shape written and oral communication in a preventive way.
Media Lesson: Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic, graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death. Use non-sensationalized language and life-giving terms. Avoid images that glamorize the death such as photos or videos of the location or method of death or grieving family and friends. Headlines such as “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide” should better be drafted as “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27.”
Business Application: Talk about suicide in a way that assumes the recipient will handle the information in a mature, responsible, life-giving way. Often, leaders avoid any reference to suicide when speaking with their teams. The rationale can be wanting to avoid any power of suggestion. “We didn’t want to give them the idea.” This belief is highly inaccurate. They already have the idea…especially immediately following a death by suicide within their social circle. Avoiding the topic lends it negative power. Discussing suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.
Media Lesson: Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad performance review. Also, avoid describing a suicide as inexplicable or “without warning.” Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide.
Application: Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated. However, these illnesses are treatable. Refer to research findings that mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90% of people who have died by suicide. Most, but not all, people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs. Identify a list of usual “Warning Signs”. Consider quoting a suicide prevention expert on causes and treatments.
Fully acknowledge the horror and the loss but emphasize what is being done to support those who are impacted. Change your language from “committed suicide” or “successful/unsuccessful suicide” to “died by suicide” or “completed suicide.”
Media Lesson: Do not cite the content of the suicide note or any “manifesto.” Better would be “A note from the deceased was found and is being reviewed by the medical examiner.”
Application: Communicate, communicate, communicate but determine what content is shared on a “what is helpful/need to know” basis and always prioritize respectful adherence to the needs and wishes of the family.
Media Lesson: Use your story to inform readers about the causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in rates, and recent treatment advances. Include means of accessing resources.
Application: Knowledge offers healthy power. Have a hopeful, caring, life-giving tone. Focus the major portion of your remarks upon resilience and health rather than details about the death. Talk about available treatment options, stories of those who overcame a suicidal crisis, and resources for help. Emphasize faith practice and spiritual strength. Include up-to-date local and national resources where people can find treatment, information and advice that promotes help-seeking.
Business leaders can change the conversation and help keep people just a little bit safer.