Issue 12 / 7 April 2014

IN 1774, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was 24 years old, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The sorrows of young Werther, about a passionate romantic who kills himself in a dramatic and ritualistic way because he is unable to be with the woman he loves.

Authorities in several countries banned the book after “Werther fever” apparently saw young men, not just dressing in Werther’s trademark blue jacket and yellow vest, but also emulating his method of suicide. In some German cities, even the blue and yellow outfit was banned.

Debate about the ways in which public depictions of suicide can affect those at risk continues to this day.

Goethe later sought to distance himself from this early work, but more than 2 centuries on the term “Werther effect” is still used to describe the risk of such depictions leading to copycat behaviour.

Australia’s Mindframe National Media Initiative has been something of a pioneer in providing information to help journalists, as well as those working in fictional forms such as film and television, to avoid causing harm when they portray  suicide and mental health issues in general.

How, and even whether, the media should report suicide has long been a hotly contested topic.

Until relatively recently, most media outlets saw the subject as more or less taboo, out of concern about the possible effect of coverage on others who might be at risk — unless a celebrity was involved, of course, in which case it tended to be open slather.

In recent years, though, a number of prominent advocates, including Melbourne psychiatrist Professor Pat McGorry, have argued this “culture of secrecy” increases the risk of suicide and makes it harder for the bereaved to recover from their loss.

Media coverage of the issue has become more common and possibly more responsible. It’s good to see Mindframe’s new suite of resources on the subject, released last week, saying Australian journalists generally report suicide and mental health issues well.

Mindframe acknowledges what a challenge this can be for journalists struggling to come to grips with complex issues under tight deadlines, but it also points to the benefits that can come from sensitive and accurate reporting.

“If positively framed, stories about mental illness can inform the community and be a powerful tool in addressing misconceptions and stigma associated with mental illness”, the new guide for journalists says.

On the other hand, “if reports are inaccurate, unbalanced or sensationalist it can reinforce common myths and impact significantly on people experiencing mental illness, making them less likely to seek help when they need it”.

When it comes to reporting suicide, the Mindframe recommendations include making sure the coverage is not too prominent, avoiding use of the word “suicide” in headlines, omitting detailed descriptions of method or location, and seeking comment from suicide prevention experts.

Contact details for at least two 24-hour crisis services should also be added to any story about suicide or attempted suicide.

It’s good to see the overall positive rating of media coverage in this area, and even better to see Australian suicide rates trending downwards (though a Mindframe analysis of the latest Bureau of Statistics figures appears to show rates for some groups going in the other direction, most notably teenage girls and men aged 45–49 years).

However, with the rise of the largely uncontrolled environment of the internet, traditional media outlets are likely to play a much less important role in this in the future.

Evidence about the impact of online discussion of suicide is, as Mindframe puts it, “still emerging”, though the organisation somewhat optimistically suggests its recommendations should be applied there too, including in social media.

We shouldn’t obsess so much over the undeniable risks posed by the online world that we forget its potential benefits in providing information and a platform for interventions. A cry for help can be answered on a social media site as well as by more traditional means.

The challenge, as always, will be to ensure we take advantage of the possibilities, while minimising the harms.


Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

3 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Suicide stories

  1. Stephen Kilkeary says:

    The argument that suicide must be reported ‘sensitively’ merely reinforces the taboo around and discussions about why any individual would wish to take her or his own life. To construct suicide, as Mindframe does, as a consequence of underlying, usually untreated psychopathology, is to presume that we are talking about a biomedical illness that can be best treated by medication. The fact is that we still know so little as to what motivates the suicidal person. Usually post event and almost always without anything approaching a thorough, psychological autopsy, we determine that the suicidal person was ‘depressed.’ Conversations then focus on what could have been had that depression been spotted, and treated. That over several decades or more, this constricted view on suicide causation has failed to yield any positive shift in suicide rates, tells me that the hypothesis is critically flawed. Instead of tiptoeing around suicide, we need to engage with the subject openly, and critically. That includes not confining our thoughts and words within a biomedical prism but to look at all the factors that contribute to this most persistent of social problems. For instance, the part played by child abuse, often in the form of neglect, and its resultant trauma.


  2. says:

    As an OUT gay man in the 45–49 year bracket, I can relate to the Stephen’s comments, especially regarding Mindframe’s biomedical focus.   The psychosocial AND political reasons for why a person consciously decides to exit stage left from existence in the community needs to be taken into account and openly discussed.  Mindframe are actually advocating an opposite stance.  Mindframe could ponder their media foreward and apply it to themselves:  “The media has an important role to play in shaping and reinforcing social attitudes towards, and perceptions of, suicide and mental illness.” To paraphrase Stephen, child abuse, often in the form of legal neglect, and its resultant trauma can contribute to the suicide.  These factors are not biomedical in origin, but political.  Is Russia’s increase in youth suicides, since the Anti-Homosexuality Bill’s unanimous passing by Parliament in June 2013, caused by political ideology creating an insane climate!?!   The current Mindframe analysis discusses “Suicide and gender” and “Groups at risk”.  But where’s data on “sexuality”?    The very fact government agencies can’t unselfconsciously collate data into whether a person is bisexual, homosexual or heterosexual speaks for itself.  Australia has a problem and it isn’t that much different to Russia’s.   We need to engage openly, critically, and discuss the negation and silence surrounding a suicide’s social experiences and trauma.

  3. chris bond says:

    I think reporting suicide is a difficult issue.  It’s really only by reporting all cases of suicide as such that we will ever be able to disconnect it from the province of shame. There is no shame in suicide. It is sometimes a rational act, and sometimes not, but regardless of whether there was a good reason for it, it is never something that should incite shame. People who kill themselves are sad, profoundly sad, and if left to their sadness often see death as the only escape. What is shameful is that very often the cause of suicide is society’s homophobic attitudes. When gay males and females kill themselves and no one acknowledges that it was homophobic attitudes that led them to do this, no one learns from that death. More parents and friends of gay suicides need to come out and say “he/she died because of homophobic ignorance.” There is a stigma in being the parent of a dead gay son or daughter, which is utterly absurd. All people who loved the deceased should be able to say publicly “This is what happens if you do not embrace your son or daughter or brother and sister when they are in their formative years and say ‘we don’t care who you love, of whatever gender, we love you unconditionally”

    That’s the message that should come of so many gay suicides, but when we use secret codes like “died in unsuspicious circumstances” to indicate a suicide,  or simply say, dishonestly, that we don’t know why they did it, it means we do not want anyone to know the shameful secret that he/she was gay. And nothing changes. 

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