Robin Williams headlines make my work as a suicide researcher seem futile

Mallon, Sharon (2015). Robin Williams headlines make my work as a suicide researcher seem futile. In The Conversation The Conversation, London.



Suicide researchers are a robust group. We have to be. We are employed, often for years at a time, to think about death by suicide with the aim of finding patterns that can help to prevent further deaths. It is an emotionally challenging and complex topic. Those of us who have dedicated considerable portions of our career to thinking about it do so with the sole intention of creating evidence to help address the problem.

It is notoriously difficult to predict times of increased suicide risk because the variables are so great. However, there is strong evidence of a link between insensitive media reporting of suicide and increases in the suicide rate.

To say the reporting has disappointed many of us who work in suicide research is an understatement. From a researcher’s perspective, the solution is quite simple: don’t report on the methods or reasons for suicide in a simplistic way. Yet some of the headlines I read yesterday suggested the suicide research we produce is absolutely futile.

I am confused. Journalists tell me there is always a detailed discussion held before reporting of a suicide with the reporting guidelines held at the forefront of their decisions. They are clearly not ignorant of the issues.

So what is it that the media are responding to when they report on the details of a suicide in this way? The Leveson Inquiry has taught us that journalists will fight to protect their right to publish stories which they think are in the public’s interest. Is it possible that in reporting what suicide researchers would call “excessive detail” journalists are merely responding to the public’s curiosity about suicide?

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