Suicide is the act of killing oneself, either directly or by putting oneself in a situation in which death is virtually guaranteed.
Framing suicide in the context of success or failure (e.g., “after three prior attempts, X succeeded in killing herself”) can imply that society benefited from the death. If someone tried to kill themself and didn’t die, it can be called a “non-fatal suicide attempt” or just “suicide attempt.” Dramatic phrasing like “lost their struggle with depression” or “succumbed to despair” can imply the person is now in a “better place,” which is dangerous: Researchers have found that “detailed descriptions of the act of suicide and portrayals of the suicide victim as noble, angelic or heroic are associated with more suicides in the same community,” particularly among teens and young adults.
It is possible to condemn the act of suicide without disparaging the person who killed themself. Outside of direct quotes especially, language like “committed suicide” can paint the deceased as a criminal. Saying an individual “died by suicide” or “killed themself” is clear and accurate. Value judgments, such as describing suicide as “selfish,” add to stigma and risk discouraging people from seeking help.
It’s not always clear when people are referencing suicide in their conversations. For example, discussion on social media platforms may use words such as “unalive,” or feature “suicide” spelled differently, to talk about the subject in ways that bypass platforms’ attempts to discourage this content. Journalists attuned to these emerging terms related to suicide are in a strong position to report on consequential conversations they might otherwise miss.
Stories describing suicides, especially exact methods of suicide, can be triggering or influencing and in this sense cause real harm, as does speculating that someone died by suicide before the cause of death has been confirmed. Talking with trusted colleagues and editors is an important step in determining when and why a suicide or suicide attempt should be covered at all, especially for people who are not public figures and/or are minors.
In stories discussing suicide, including helpline numbers and links such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides immediate resources for anyone in need of support.
The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention describes contagion as “a phenomenon whereby susceptible persons are influenced toward suicidal behavior through knowledge of another person’s acts.” When news of a suicide comes out, details like the method of death or the contents of a suicide note could prompt other people to kill themselves. This phenomenon is called contagion, since from the outside it appears that the other individuals were influenced toward suicidality from the first person. Generally, these people already had risk factors for suicide, but suicide contagion can be the thing that tips the scale.
There are two types of suicide clusters. Mass clusters are closely spaced in time but don’t necessarily occur in the same place. Point clusters are connected by time and/or space and can be linked by a shared institution, like a school or prison. Research suggests that young people are especially affected by contagion.
Deaths that occur due to suicide contagion are sometimes called “copycat suicides.” Some object to this term, saying it can appear to diminish the pain of the people who killed themselves, depicting the deaths as part of a trend rather than a personal tragedy and public health issue.
Suicidal ideation covers a range of suicidality. One person may have intermittent thoughts about killing themself, while another may have a detailed plan in their head that they go over continually. Having suicidal thoughts is not a guarantee that someone will attempt suicide. Contrary to myth, simply confiding in a therapist or loved one about suicidal ideation typically is not enough to get someone sent to an inpatient hospital. Individuals are generally not hospitalized against their will unless they have decided on a plan that they intend to execute in the near future. According to Made of Millions, a nonprofit working to shift perceptions of mental health, suicidal ideation can be understood to fall along a spectrum, from occasional intrusive thoughts to passive and active ideation, intent, and attempts. For coverage to be clear and accurate, it’s important that these distinctions are captured in accounts of individuals’ experiences with suicidal ideation.
- Best Practices and Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
- Recommendations for Reporting on Mass Shootings (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
- The risk of ‘contagion’ after suicides is real (CNN)
Suicide is self-directed, intentional violence that results in death. Saying an individual “died by suicide” or “killed themself” is clear and accurate. Language like “committed suicide” can inadvertently paint the deceased as a criminal. Stories describing suicides, especially exact methods of suicide, can be triggering or influencing and in this sense cause real harm, as does speculating that someone died by suicide before the cause of death has been confirmed. In stories discussing suicide, including helpline numbers and links such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides immediate resources for anyone in need of support.