Suicide and the media

Not so long ago suicide was something you rarely read about in the press, due to an informal agreement between the media and the “helping professions” not to overly publicise the how and where aspects of suicide, as it is believed to spark copycat suicides. The advent of online journalism, social media and the 24 hour news cycle has more or less consigned that gentlemen’s agreement to the too-hard basket. The Australian mentioned the word suicide in almost 4,000 articles in the past five years. While not to say all or any of these articles were reports of specific suicides, it means the subject is in the news on a fairly regular basis.
Apart from these instances when someone famous tops themselves (Aussie parlance), the media usually behaves itself and writes about suicide in a restrained way. But when it comes to celebrity suicide, the media feeding frenzy is awful to behold. Whenever someone as well-known as Robin Williams takes his own life, the media cannot ignore it and instead of the coy shorthand (“police say there are no suspicious circumstances”), which is even now used by the ABC or local newspapers, we get a detailed description of where and when, the method used and much speculation about the why of it all.
There is a view that some suicides are newsworthy, and coverage could raise awareness in the community about the need to seek help. But as a report this week in the Sydney Morning Herald observed, going into such detail about the circumstances of Williams’ death, including the means of his suicide, could have a negative impact on vulnerable members of the community. Releasing such detail could increase the likelihood of distressed individuals making similar attempts on their own lives, Lifeline chairman John Brogden said. And there has been a high degree of criticism on social media about the media’s careless reporting of the Williams’ death. A family spokesperson said that saying it was a suicide ought to have been enough.
Suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Causes of Death, 2012, reported deaths due to suicide at 2,535. Men accounted for three out of every five deaths. The suicide rate was 2.5 times higher for those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
But despite colourful claims in the media that suicide is “out of control”, the incidence remains in a band of between 9 and 11 people per 100,000. (By comparison, in 1963 the incidence of suicide was 17.5 in every 100,000 people and has never been surpassed).
Whatever the actual rate, it is a needless waste of life in any event. As the ABS observes, these preventable deaths point to individuals who may be less connected to support networks, less inclined to seek help or less intimately connected to people who might otherwise be aware of problems.
Whether the incidence of suicide is declining (and data from the past decade suggests it is), this is a notoriously difficult field for statisticians and one is advised that interpreting this data can be misleading. The fact remains that 1901 males and 634 females took their own lives in 2012. In the prosperous, first-world country that is Australian in 2014, we need to do more work on figuring out why.

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