Responsible Reporting of Suicides

NB: While the commentary below originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004, the issues discussed are, sadly, just as relevant today.  There have been some changes in the manner in which suicide is reported in the media, however there are still glaring misconceptions about the appropriate way to cover a suicide, if it is appropriate in the first place, terms to use and terms to avoid, and a lack of knowledge about facts, risk factors, and warning signs.  The hope is that this article will serve as a reminder about the importance of responsible reporting of suicides and the responsibility of media outlets to provide relevant facts and information.  

Report Suicides Responsibly

by Tony Salvatore, MA

Like many, I was saddened to read of the deaths of David Wallace and his wife, Joan, particularly of the means by which they died (“Eminent architect dies in double suicide,” July 20).

Given David Wallace’s stature, and the comparative rarity of double suicides, I understand why this tragic situation would receive significant media attention. However, from my suicide-prevention perspective, the nature of The Inquirer’s coverage raises a number of concerns.

First, the article appeared on the front page. Second, it included a fairly detailed description of the method by which the couple ended their lives. Third, it made no effort to put the deaths into the context of suicides among elders. Sadly, these are increasing in what is often called a silent epidemic.

A number of organizations have offered guidelines for coverage of suicide. They seek to raise awareness that some vulnerable, high-risk individuals may carry out their own suicides by reading detailed news accounts of how others took their own lives. One such set came in 2001 from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, acting in concert with national suicide-prevention organizations.

The report, “Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media,” explicitly discourages the placement of such stories on the front page or at the top of a broadcast. It is understood that suicides involving prominent persons, public circumstances, multiple deaths, or the very young are generally considered newsworthy. The Wallaces’ deaths fell into two of these categories and merited coverage. However, front-page treatment was not necessary.

Of greater concern was the detailed description of the lethal means that the Wallaces employed – another practice that the Annenberg report discourages.

These details, which I obviously choose not to get into here, were not essential to reporting this loss. Moreover, given that some may see these deaths as rational suicides – Joan Wallace was in hospice care; David Wallace had cancer – some circumspection was in order.

So-called copycat suicides are not limited to youths. It is to be hoped that The Inquirer would not have described the means used in reporting a high-profile teen suicide. The same judgment should have applied here.

Lastly, the Wallaces, David Wallace in particular, were in an age group at high risk of suicide, a fact not well known. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a suicide by someone over 65 every 90 minutes, which amounts to 16 such deaths daily in the United States. Elders account for 20 percent of all suicides but represent only about 12 percent of the population. White men over 85 have a suicide rate six times higher than the national average.

Statewide, says the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there were more than 1,200 suicides among people 65 and over from 1997 through 2001 and fewer than 400 among those 19 or younger.

This same pattern prevails in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where elders accounted for more than 18 percent of all suicides in the same period and youths represented less than 6 percent of the losses.

The point is not that greater numbers make elder suicides more distressing than those at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Rather the point is that The Inquirer, having chosen to highlight the deaths of David and Joan Wallace, could have used this opportunity to inform its readers about the little-known incidence of suicide in the “golden years.”

Depression and hopelessness play a prominent role in elder suicide. Neither condition is normal at any age. Caregivers and health-care providers could have been alerted to these possible precursors to suicide in elders.

The Inquirer could also have noted that frailty makes the elderly less likely to survive suicide attempts. And it could have mentioned that greater social isolation makes it less likely that elders attempting suicide will be discovered in time to save their lives.

With the accelerated aging of our society, we must pay more attention to elder suicide and how the media should treat it. Suicide prevention is obviously not the media’s primary job. Nonetheless, it can play a powerful role in educating the community about this preventable problem.

Tony Salvatore is director of development of Montgomery County Emergency Services Inc., a nonprofit emergency psychiatric agency in Norristown.

The Nature of Suicide Threats

by Tony Salvatore, M.A.

The term “suicide threat” brings to mind an anguished “cry for help” by someone at imminent risk of suicide.  This may be the case and warrants immediate crisis intervention when it is.  However, there are suicide threats that are less a “cry for help” than an effort to bypass the established channels to get it.  This second form of suicide threat is usually devoid of any imminent risk.  Both variations are frequently encountered by emergency responders and behavioral health staff.

 

Basically, a suicide threat is a type of “suicide communication” and the common signal of potential suicide risk.  It is “any interpersonal action, verbal or nonverbal, without a direct self-injurious component, that a reasonable person might interpret as…communicating that suicidal behavior might occur in the near future” (Silverman et al., 2007).   Suicide threats may convey definite suicidal intent, involve no suicidal intent, or be unclear as to suicidal intent (Silverman et al., 2007).

 

A suicide threat may not always be a reflection of suicidal ideation involving any thought of death.  However, any suicide threat connotes the possibility of pending more active and possibly harmful suicidal behavior so it must be taken seriously.  At the very least this should involve screening the individual for signs of suicide risk, a specific suicide plan, and intent.  When these factors are present a voluntary or involuntary psychiatric evaluation may be in order.

 

A suicide threat grabs most people’s attention, particularly if those it is directed at care about the person voicing the threat or have some responsibility for her or his well-being.  This gives suicide threats the power to provoke a response whether or not suicidal intent is actually present.  Suicide threats get a gatekeeper’s full attention and can immediately open doors.  This feature has not been lost on substance abusers and others who wish to elude contact with the criminal justice system or expedite admission to an inpatient treatment setting.

 

While we must take a suicide threat at face value as a sign of potential suicide risk, it would be helpful to know when this is actually so.  It has been suggested that the nature of a threat may indicate if it is accompanied by intent.  Consider these two threats:

 

“I am going to kill myself tonight by [insert lethal means].”

“I will kill myself tonight if I have to go back to jail.”

 

The first is an unconditional statement of intent with a plan comprising a definite timeframe and means.  The second also gives a timeframe, but it is conditional and “sets the terms” under which “intent” may become effective.  The first is a “non-contingent suicide threat” which is passive and does not include any demands; the second is a “contingent suicide threat” which may be dramatic and predicated on secondary gain to the individual (Lambert, 2002).

 

Whereas emergency responders, crisis center and ER staff, and facility admissions personnel have probably heard both types of suicide threats, it is likely that they more often hear threats that are conditional in nature.  This is borne out by the research.  Those who make contingent suicide threats are more likely to have diagnoses of substance dependence and also to be at low risk of suicide (Lambert, 2002).  On the other hand, those making non-contingent threats are more likely to be characterized by severe depression rather than substance dependence, and also to be at high risk of suicide.

 

The nature of the suicide threat may give some indication of the nature of the suicidality and, correspondingly, the level of suicide risk that may be present.  Non-contingent threats tend to be associated with acute suicidality; contingent threats are more often linked to what has been called chronic suicidality.  It is hoped that further research may provide screening and assessment tools that can validly distinguish each type of suicide threat.