Suicides of Young People

When a young person’s life is tragically cut short by suicide, the impact is catastrophic – completely devastating families and affecting the lives of many others who knew them.

While there is clearly a public interest in reporting youth suicides and suicide clusters, it’s important for journalists to be aware that young people who are affected by suicide – for example a death at their school or university – are at increased risk of suicide contagion.

Studies have shown that people who are bereaved by suicide are at increased risk of suicide themselves. A large body of evidence exists which links certain types of media reporting to an increase in suicide rates.

Deaths of young people by suicide are more likely to be reported.

Suicides by young people under the age of 25 account for 11% of all suicide deaths in the UK. However, these deaths are far more extensively covered in the news compared to other age groups.

Youth suicides are frequently reported in a more sensational way. This could include romanticised language, lots of photographs of the young people or person who has died, outpourings of grief and memorials, and often, intense speculation on possible causes. 

Young people can be especially vulnerable

For young people, the risk of influencing suicidal behaviour is greater for a number of reasons, including them being:

▪ more influenced by what they see and hear in the media than other groups

▪ increased risk of imitative suicidal behaviour

▪ increased risk of suicide contagion if they’ve been affected by suicide

▪ more likely to behave spontaneously

▪ less likely to have gained the level of emotional maturity which helps us to see a way through problems encountered in life (an issue like relationship breakdown or academic failure, can feel all-consuming and never-ending, increasing the likelihood of these experiences feeling overwhelming)

▪ less likely to fully understand the permanency of suicide – increasing their risk of suicide ideation and contagion. Suicide is a very permanent response to what are typically temporary problems.

Give extra consideration

In my opinion and experience please give extra consideration to reports covering suicidal behaviour by young people including attempts, deaths and inquests. 

In addition, language and tone are important. Carefully consider the inclusion of comments posted on social media sites, as these can sometimes inadvertently romanticise suicidal behaviour. Examples include: “Heaven’s gained another angel” and “You’re at peace now”.

Extra care should be taken around speculation of causes. For example, when a suicide death is reported and bullying is cited as the cause, it’s helpful to consider the impact on other young people who could be experiencing bullying and may feel hopeless about their own situation – stories including how a young person took their life, lots of photographs, outpourings of grief, revenge messages directed at bullies – can increase the likelihood of others identifying with the person who has died and could lead to suicide contagion.

It’s particularly important to be aware of the risk of inadvertently promoting the idea of achieving something through death which didn’t seem possible in life. This could encourage the idea of suicide to another young person who is vulnerable and make it feel like a suitable option for them too.

Reducing the risk

With young readers in mind

▪ avoid giving details of the suicide method

▪ bear in mind that suicide is complex and rarely, if ever, as a result of a single cause

▪ avoid showing photographs of others who have died

▪ stick with a factual tone – publish a respectful tribute piece, focusing on the tragic loss of life without overly romanticising a suicide death

▪ remind your audience that suicide is preventable and signpost people to sources of support (see the bottom of this blog for examples)

This is not about censoring or an attempt to brush the topic of suicide under the carpet. I personally do not believe that suicides by young people, or indeed any age group, should not be covered in the press. It is simply about giving extra consideration about how these stories are covered because of the extra vulnerabilities of young people.

The media can raise awareness

The media can play an important role in raising awareness of the issues surrounding suicidal behaviour and supporting national efforts to reduce the number of suicides in the UK.

Highlighting the importance of talking and encouraging people to reach out and seek help can help to reduce suicides and there is a growing area of literature which suggests that responsible reports of suicide, such as stories which promote suicide prevention messages and encourage people to seek help, can reach out to people and help prevent suicides.

The media help raise awareness of the issues surrounding suicide, highlighting:

▪ the type of problems which may lead a person to become vulnerable to suicide

▪ the signs which may indicate they are struggling to cope

▪ remind people who may be vulnerable that suicide is not inevitable, it is preventable

▪ encourage help-seeking behaviour by promoting the benefits of talking and signposting sources of support.

A powerful way to spread these vital messages can be through real life stories of people who have reached a difficult time in their life.

People call Samaritans for free any time on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit http://www.samaritans.org to find details of their nearest branch.

Call Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 or visit http://www.breathingspace.scot for more information.

Steven Connelly

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