The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide breach the World Health Organisation’s (2000)guidelines in a number of respects. These are some extracts…
“Media play a significant role in today’s society by providing a very wide range of
information in a variety of ways. They strongly influence community attitudes, beliefs and
behaviour, and play a vital role in politics, economics and social practice. Because of that
influence media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”
“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who
consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many
factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the
media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”
Television also influences suicidal behaviour. Philips (7) showed an increase in suicide
up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide. As in the printed media, highly
publicized stories that appear in multiple programmes on multiple channels seem to carry the
greatest impact – all the more so if they involve celebrities. However, there are conflicting reports
about the impact of fictional programmes: some show no effect, while others cause an increase
in suicidal behaviour (8)
Sensational coverage of suicides should be assiduously avoided, particularly when a
celebrity is involved. The coverage should be minimized to the extent possible. Any
mental health problem the celebrity may have had should also be acknowledged. Every
effort should be made to avoid overstatement. Photographs of the deceased, of the
method used and of the scene of the suicide are to be avoided. Front page headlines are
never the ideal location for suicide reports.
Detailed descriptions of the method used and how the method was procured should be
avoided. Research has shown that media coverage of suicide has a greater impact on
the method of suicide adopted than the frequency of suicides. Certain locations – bridges,
cliffs, tall buildings, railways, etc. – are traditionally associated with suicide and added
publicity increases the risk that more people will use them.
Suicide should not be reported as unexplainable or in a simplistic way. Suicide is never
the result of a single factor or event. It is usually caused by a complex interaction of
many factors such as mental and physical illness, substance abuse, family disturbances,
interpersonal conflicts and life stressors. Acknowledging that a variety of factors
contributes to suicide would be helpful.
Suicide should not be depicted as a method of coping with personal problems such as
bankruptcy, failure to pass an examination, or sexual abuse.
Reports should take account of the impact of suicide on families and other survivors in
terms of both stigma and psychological suffering.
Glorifying suicide victims as martyrs and objects of public adulation may suggest to
susceptible persons that their society honours suicidal behaviour. Instead, the emphasis
should be on mourning the person’s death.
Describing the physical consequences of non-fatal suicide attempts (brain damage,
paralysis, etc.) can act as a deterrent.