By Steven Gregor, InPsych production editor

There has always been a substantial level of public interest in youth suicide. As a result, a number of years ago the Federal Government identified youth suicide and its prevention as both a funding and policy priority, and continues to do so with a number of new and evolving initiatives. It is not surprising, then, that the issue has also traditionally received extensive coverage in the media.

All this attention is justified, that goes without saying; youth suicide is a tragedy. It is, however, crucial to address the youth suicide statistics in context with those of other age groups (please refer to the article, Australian suicide trends: 1991-2001, in the August 2004 issue of InPsych). Suicide, obviously, is not an issue only relevant to young Australians; however, one issue that many researchers believe is of particular concern to young people is the phenomenon referred to as copycat suicide. Ironically, the copycat suicide issue is believed by many to be a direct result of the substantial level of public interest and media coverage.

Suicide and the media

Research identified by Mindframe, the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing's national strategy for responsible reporting of suicide and mental illness in the media, has concluded that the way the media presents stories on suicide can have a direct influence on the public's perception of suicide and its related mental health issues. As Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in the US, stated in a recent article on copycat suicide: "suicide contagion is real. Social behaviour is contagious and influential. We wouldn't have a billion-dollar advertising market in this country (the US) if people didn't think you could influence someone else's behaviour."

Debate does continue, however, on how significant the media's reporting of suicide is on actual suicide rates. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a psychologist specialising in treating adolescents at Melbourne's Albert Road Centre for Health, believes the impact is substantial, warning that inappropriate media coverage can "romanticise, glamorise, sanitise and normalise" suicide.

Why are young people so vulnerable?

Dr Carr-Gregg believes it is especially important for young people to feel as if they have a positive social identity and that they feel socially integrated. However, he says: "the evidence is showing us that there are more and more young people who don't feel safe, valued or listened to and who are therefore increasingly vulnerable. Many young people are ‘spiritual anorexics'. They don't believe in themselves, they don't have a basic sense of meaning, purpose or belonging." This, coupled with what Dr Carr-Gregg describes as "an absolutely prurient interest in what the media tells them to be interested in", can work to increase adolescent vulnerability. "If there are a lot of gloomy, pessimistic, negativistic stories in the media - sadly, what we tend to see reported - then vulnerability will increase."

US analysis

Sociologist Dr Steven Stack, a US-based social science researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit, and one of the world's foremost experts in the area of suicidology, recently analysed 42 studies on the impact of the media's coverage of suicide and the potential likelihood of subsequent copycat suicides. His research identified three explanations for the media's impact on suicide rates. The first explanation is based on a simple copycat or imitation perspective - "stories provide illustrations of troubled people who opt to suicide as a way out of their troubles. Troubled people in society can, thus, identify with other troubled people and copycat the behaviour.

"A second (explanation) is differential identification with models - in particular, celebrities or well known people who represent the realm of the "superior". Following Gabriel Tarde's (a French sociologist) imitation theory, people model behaviour after superior people more than average people," Dr Stack said. In fact, research identified by Dr Stack has shown that media stories detailing celebrity suicides are 14 times more likely (compared to media stories of non-celebrity suicides) to generate a copycat effect.

Dr Stack's third explanation involves audience receptiveness. "This has not attracted much research attention. Nevertheless, different genders, races, and age groups in the audience may be more primed for suicide than others - young and old (not middle-aged) are more apt to copycat." Dr Stack's research identified the young (less than 35-years) as one group particularly sensitive to copycat effects.

However, from his research, Dr Stack believes the strongest indicator of a possible copycat effect is the volume of media coverage an individual suicide receives. "There is almost no research on the extent to which story presentation affects suicide. (California-based researcher and author) DP Phillips found no evidence that story presentation influenced copycat suicide independent of the sheer amount of television coverage. Hence, I would recommend limiting coverage to the minimum - back page news, short articles, and brief (for example, 10 seconds) television coverage."

Analysis of the Australian media's coverage of suicide

Mindframe, with funding from the National Suicide Prevention Strategy, has conducted both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the impact of the media reporting on such issues. This analysis, conducted over a 12-month period, aimed to "establish a baseline picture of how the Australian media portray suicide, mental illness and mental health and to use the results to inform future strategies to optimise media reporting."

While the analysis did not specifically focus on the effect of media coverage on children and adolescents (nor did it concentrate on the potential likelihood of a subsequent copycat suicide), the findings do help to show if the Australian media is generally acting in a responsible manner - and any such findings are relevant to the discussion pertaining to children, adolescents and copycat suicide.

Findings from the analysis reveal that:

  • Reporting of suicide and mental illness was "extensive" - 17,151 items;
  • Males and young people commonly featured in news stories;
  • The quality of reporting "varied widely";
  • Stories found most problematic were based on information collected from courts, coroner's reports or the police;
  • Inappropriate language was a "central concern"; and
  • Most stories did not include contacts for advice, counselling or access to mental health services.

Australian research on the media's coverage of suicide, and if that coverage has a direct impact on local suicide rates, is unavailable. However, psychologist Dr Daniel Romer, at a session at the American Psychological Association's 2003 Annual Convention, said that the media played a role in approximately 10 per cent of all suicide deaths among people 25-years or younger, either by giving them the idea to commit suicide or by providing those who are vulnerable with information on specific methods.

Barbara Hocking, Executive Director of SANE, a national charity helping people affected by mental illness through education, research and campaigning, acknowledges the highly variable nature of media reporting but encourages greater public awareness of the underlying mental health issues. "Media reporting (of suicide) can be very helpful, but I think it is also critical (to report) on how the tragedy has impacted on other people - and what was going on that led to the suicide. You read some reports of suicide where you'd believe everyone was happy, laughing and dancing until the very last moment; we cannot escape the fact that at that time people are feeling desperate and without choice, and mental illness is a very large part of that."

Youth suicide: the tip of the iceberg

"While suicide is an enormously complex issue," Dr Carr Gregg says, "it's only the tip of the iceberg; for every adolescent that kills him or herself there at least 200 who try and don't succeed. I actually think that we've got a lot of work to do with young people's mental health.

"I see adolescents with a growing number of problems due to the fact that a lot of the support mechanisms that used to be there are no longer. The psychological mooring posts, as Prof Gordon Parker (of the School of Psychiatry, The University of new South Wales) calls them, are gone and I think that this is arguably one of the most vulnerable generations we've ever had."

Dr Carr-Gregg continues by highlighting the difficulty so many young people have in obtaining mental health services, acknowledging that "the existing heath services are enormously over stretched; so, even if a young person does get referred, the likelihood of them getting treatment is not very good."

With regard to adolescents and copycat suicide, Dr Stack offers one simple solution: "The fewer the number of stories about suicides of individuals the better."

Youth suicide snapshot 
  • The rate of suicide in young women (15-24 years) has remained relatively stable for the past 20 years at around five deaths per 100,000.
  • The overall frequency of suicide among young males (15-24 years) increased from about 6.8 per 100,000 in 1960 to peak at 26.7 per 100,000 in 1998 and has since fallen to 19 per 100,000 in 2002.
  • However, in 2002, suicide still represented 25 per cent of all deaths for males aged 15-24 years and 15 per cent of all female deaths in the same age group.
  • Australia's young (15-24) male suicide rate is fourth highest among Western countries; the Australian rate of suicide is similar to that of the US and Canada, less than the New Zealand rate, and higher than the UK rate.

Source: Mindframe Media and Mental Health (MMMH - www.mindframe-media.info) Project; Australian Bureau of Statistics (Dec 2003).

 

 

Media tips for psychologists 

Psychologists have an important role to play in assisting the media with its coverage of suicide. It is important to ensure that journalists are made fully aware of the potential influence such coverage can have on a depressed person who may, or may not, already be having suicidal thoughts. In their dealings with the media on such issues, psychologists should:

  • Raise awareness of the mental health issues that so often contribute to suicide, highlighting the treatments and alternatives to suicide;
  • Encourage use of language that does not glamorise or sensationalise suicide, or present suicide as a solution to problems;
  • Advise the journalist to avoid explicit details of the method or location of any particular suicide;
  • When commenting on the suicide of a celebrity, advise the journalist to seek comment on the wastefulness of the act (an air of tragedy coupled with the celebrity's new "legendary" status can add a perceived glamour and attraction to a vulnerable adolescent);
  • Provide information on support services and help line contacts (for example, SANE Helpline, Kids Help Line, Lifeline, and the APS referral service), including telephone numbers and any other contact details, so these can be included in the media report.
  • Finally, should you see an example of irresponsible journalism, contact the media outlet.

Source: Mindframe Media and Mental Health (MMMH) Project; Mental Health Branch, Department of Health and Aged Care; and The Australian Press Council. 

 

References

Gould, M., Jamieson, P., & Romer, D. Media contagion and suicide among the young. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 1269-1284.

Philips, D.P. (1974) The influence of suggestion on suicide: substantive and theoretical implications of the Werther Effect. ASR, 39, 340-354.

Stack, S. Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 238-240.