We Must Change the Way We Talk and Report About Suicide

“Died unexpectedly, at the age of 35,” my friend’s obituary began. Reading the whole entry, I might have come to the conclusion that he was an unfortunate victim of a heart attack or early stroke.

However, a text message I received from a mutual friend gave me the full story.

“He committed suicide. Sounds like he was far in debt and super depressed. I still can’t believe it.”

Contrary to the obituary’s claim, this was not the unexpected death of an innocent victim taken from us too soon, without warning. This was the intentional, self-inflicted death by a man who clearly lost hope and chose to end his life.

I know this sounds harsh. But it’s true. I sympathize with family members who want to portray their loved ones in the best light and keep the cause of death a secret. After all, it’s embarrassing to admit that someone you love ended their own life.

But why? Why are we so ashamed to discuss or even acknowledge suicide?

The sad reality is that suicide is not just brushed under the rug by relatives of the deceased who are hoping not to expose shameful family secrets. In fact, many news organizations have rules in their newsroom explicitly forbidding reporting on suicides.

I saw this in action first-hand, several years ago. In 2010, I worked for a tech company in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs. One November day, I looked out the window and was shocked to see a dead body lying on the sidewalk. It appeared that a man had fallen off the roof of the building across the street.

A crowd gathered. Police arrived and closed off the street. A covering was draped over the deceased. Rumors began swirling. Who was this man? Did he fall? Did he jump?

I tried to work at my desk while ignoring the commotion outside. After a while, I went online to see what the local news would say about the event. To my surprise, they said almost nothing. Frustratedly, I reached out to one station, FOX21, and asked why.

The message I received shocked me: “Hi Ron, a man committed suicide by jumping off the Alamo Building. Our policy is to not cover suicides. Hope that helps.”

Hope that helps? The busiest street in the downtown area is cordoned off, and there’s a crime scene causing a tremendous spectacle in front of hundreds of spectators and FOX21 is ignoring a breaking story simply due to the cause of death?

That’s outrageous. It’s also misguided.

The standard response by newspapers and media companies is that they choose not to cover suicides in order to “prevent copycat suicides.” But I don’t buy that defense. Many of these same news organizations will place stories about terrorist acts and school shootings on the front page, and these stories can—and have been proven to—inspire “copycat” events.

It’s a nice idea to think that we’re not contributing to more suicides by refusing to cover them. But it’s not that simple. Nothing about suicide is simple.

Even the Centers for Disease Control has acknowledged in a report that “efforts on the part of many suicide-prevention specialists… to curtail the reporting of suicide… were often counterproductive.”

There are indeed a few specific things that do promote what the CDC calls “suicide contagion” when reporting on the topic, which includes obvious examples such as glorifying suicide, providing sensational coverage, reporting ‘how-to’ descriptions, and more.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that reporters should “seek truth and report it.” Can we not report on suicides while also “showing good taste” and “avoiding lurid curiosity” as it also recommends? Yes, we can, and we must.

I understand how devastated friends and family members feel when a loved one commits suicide. I have personally lost at least six friends and one family member to suicide in the past few years. I understand the pain, the confusion, and the shame involved.

Having said that, we are doing no favors, either to the memory of the dead or the survivors by pretending that those who choose to end their own lives weren’t suffering.

Suicide is a “leading cause of death” and “major public health concern” in America, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

It is time to be open and honest about the crisis. The lack of honesty and openness in our culture is shameful. We must change the way we talk about and report on suicide. Admitting that we have a problem is the first step.