Suicide in the Headlines: The Right & Wrong Way to Discuss It

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.~ Robin Williams
Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.~ Anthony Bourdain
She makes the day brighter, she leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.~ Kate Spade

Contagion Effect. Many haven’t heard the technical reference, but most of us agree we’ve seen it. When a celebrity or someone with clout dies by suicide, more suicides seem to appear in the headlines. Shari Sinwelski, Associate Project Director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, says “sometimes people may already be feeling very vulnerable, and they see someone who they can relate to and their vulnerabilities,” contributing to the contagion effect. According to a Columbia University research team, in the five months after Robin Williams death in 2014, suicides increased by almost 10%. Similarly, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline jumped 25% following the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, both the first week of June in 2018.

It’s clear.

There is a connection between those in prominent positions taking their life and those with depressive and/or suicidal thoughts feeling them more intensely. So how do we talk about a headline involving suicide to those who may already have suicidal thoughts? Psychologists, counselors, and crisis centers all agree that it’s key to find the right tenor, to talk and listen without judgment and to not act as if suicide is committing a crime. Dr. Joel Dvoskin, Clinical Psychologist with the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson, warns against giving details of the method someone used because it only works to “sensationalize suicide” and so too does giving details of the location suicide occurred and contents of any notes.

So how can we talk about suicide, especially when it’s splashed across the headlines?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses the importance of discussing both the deceased’s positive aspects and struggles. Sticking to positives alone can glamorize suicide. National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) pleads with people to stop referring to suicide as an event that is successful, unsuccessful, or a failed attempt. But to be clear, the CDC and NAMI want you to talk about suicide. Dr. Oquendo, past President of the American Psychiatric Association, preaches that it’s 100% safe to talk about suicide because there is no proof that discussing suicide leads to suicide. Someone who is not already having suicidal thoughts will not magically develop them because you started a conversation with a topic or subtopic of suicide. But if someone is struggling with these thoughts, according to Dr. Oquendo, they’re “often relieved” they now have an open door to discuss them.

So while you’re reminiscing about Robin’s incomparable humor and improvisation and Anthony’s ability to make us salivate over food thousands of miles away and Kate’s vision for a handbag that catapulted it to more than a means for just carrying a wallet and emergency bandaids, take time to discuss their struggles. Hope for those who struggle often starts with someone else starting a conversation and then, listening with a mind and heart that truly wants to understand. 

“For any person that dies by suicide, 287 on average think about suicide and don’t die.” Thank you, Ms. Sinwelski. We needed to hear that. We needed to know there’s hope for all with suicidal thoughts because now, we feel more confident to give that hope to them… by opening a door to the conversation… by realizing what glamorizes suicide… by not letting someone’s signs of pain go unnoticed.

Author: Evelyn Lindell
Certified Health & Wellness Coach
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255 (TALK)