Why safe reporting on suicide matters

BY Corinne Segal  August 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM EST
A fan places flowers in front of the home of actor and comedian Robin Williams in Tiburon, California, on Aug. 12. Williams committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt, local law enforcement said. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A fan places flowers in front of the home of actor and comedian Robin Williams in Tiburon, California, on Aug. 12. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Robin Williams’ death on Monday again brought into the spotlight the pitfalls of irresponsible reporting on suicide. The Marin County Sheriff’s office on Tuesday confirmed that the 63-year-old actor had committed suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and a major public health issue in the United States. (Read the CDC’s factsheet on suicide.)

When the media reports on the suicide of public figures, it raises the possibility of “copycat” suicides. To reduce this likelihood, a group of mental health and suicide prevention specialists released a set of recommendations for reporters on covering this issue.

For example, the guidelines warn against describing the method of suicide and using dramatic headlines or images.

Romanticizing suicide in the media also could encourage others to commit the act, according to the Poynter Institute, a journalism organization.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised eyebrows when it tweeted after Williams’ death the line, “Genie, you’re free.” Some said it might have glamorized his suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention highlighted two studies in Vienna, Austria, that showed an 80 percent drop in subway suicides after a campaign encouraged responsible reporting.