Mental health issues are very prevalent today and it is our duty as journalists to report on mental health, depression and suicide with sensitivity and compassion. It also includes using the correct language. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) along with the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) hosted a webinar to train journalists on reporting on suicide. The number of cases have increased dramatically. according to SADAG, with an estimated 23 suicides occuring daily South Africa.

Adolescents in particular are a high risk group, and men are more likely to die from suicide than women, yet the data shows women make more attempts. Additionally, SADAG has noted that 1 in 4 calls they have received are  suicide related – majority of which are from the youth. 

SADAG’s operations officer, Cassey Chambers said that the reasons for suicidal tendencies are complicated. They could range from personal issues, such as finance, relationships, loss, grief, ill health, trauma, untreated mental illnesses; as well as external factors like the high cost of living or people’s living conditions. It can also be a culmination of all these things. 

Given the complexities, it’s important that we as journalists don’t speculate or make an assumption about the person’s lifestyle and choices. 

The first rule of journalism applies here as well: verify the information. 

Veteran journalist, Marion Scher also provided some insight into the things that journalists should keep in mind when reporting on mental health, and suicide. The most important thing that she highlighted is the use of language. 

SADAG and SANEF developed guidelines on what language to use when reporting on suicide to ensure caution and sensitivity. 

One of the most common mistakes journalists make is saying “committed suicide”. Scher said it is better to instead say that someone had “died by suicide” or “took their own life”. 

See more examples below:

Another cardinal rule is to avoid using puns, especially in headlines, and refrain from publishing personal information like the suicide note or family details, the method of suicide and their location. Stick to details that have been verified and which you have permission to publish. 

The same rules apply when reporting on a celebrity’s suicide.

These stories tend to have a longer shelf life and can leave a lasting impact on the family of the deceased, so don’t sensationalise, oversimplify and speculate celebrity suicides, either, and consider the long-term implications of your reporting. 

In both these cases, we must remember that we are not just writing for our audience, but that the family and loved ones of the deceased will be reading this; so be considerate of their feelings as well. 

You also need to be sensitive when selecting an image to publish with your story. Scher said journalists and editors should refrain from using ‘weapons’ to depict suicide. Whether it’s a rope, bloody knife, gun, pills etc. Instead, use images of the person or stock images of people in general. Images are subjective, so we must be cautious when using them. 

Educate and empower 

The role of the journalist is not simply to report on a suicide, but to also use the opportunity to inform and educate others about some of the symptoms of suicide, how to cope with life’s stressors and how to seek to help and treatment. 

That means learning about it as well. 

The 10th of October marks International Mental Health Day to create awareness about understanding the complexities of mental illnesses and taking care of your own mental health. It’s never one thing – and we should not be perpetuating myths, stigma and false ideas of mental health and suicide. 

Reporting on mental health and suicide has not always been on the journalistic agenda, but with its prevalence and importance, we cannot avoid it. Now is a good time to interrogate our own values and beliefs around mental health and suicide, address and understand them, while also being culturally and religiously sensitive. 

Newsrooms should therefore have discussions around their own journalistic values when reporting on suicide and other triggering topics, and if it helps, to develop a guideline that you can keep handy when the occasion arises; and hold each other accountable to ensure the information being published ticks all the right boxes. 

According to Chambers, here’s the role that the media can play when reporting suicide: 

  • Responsible reporting can reduce the risk of additional suicides
  • Covering suicide carefully can change perceptions, dispel myths and inform the public on the complexities of suicide
  • Media reports can result in help seeking when they include helpful resources and messages of hope and recovery 
  • Handle the topic carefully and thoughtfully

In doing so, the media can help save a life. 

Finally, always include numbers of organisations that people can reach out to; for themselves or a loved one. 

Suicide Crisis Helpline

0800 567 567

CIPLA Mental Health Helpline

0800 456 789

Substance Abuse Helpline

0800 12 13 14

For more information: 

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