Covering Suicide


A new study in BMC Public Health (September 2018) reviewing Canadian newspaper coverage of the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why shows major English-language Canadian newspapers generally adhered to core best-practices promoted by Mindset, as far as they apply to a fictional story, and says coverage "sensitively discussed suicide from various angles, prompting productive discussion and dialogue about youth suicide. 

Authors Victoria Carmichael and Rob Whitley of McGill University concludedThese findings suggest that, taken in the round, the Canadian media is acting in a socially responsible manner consistent with best practice. This may have a positive effect on public beliefs, behaviours and attitudes regarding youth suicide and suicide prevention." 

A significant shortcoming, however, was the relatively few instances in which publications included information about where people contemplating suicide could turn for help. 

An earlier survey of Canadian English-language newspaper coverage of the suicide of Robin Williams has found those reports “generally follow the evidence-based guidelines regarding the reporting of suicide set out in Mindset.

Eighty-five percent of the articles surveyed followed at least 70% of 12 recommendations selected from the guide. Fifty-five per cent of the stories passed a “high-fidelity” test, following 80% of those recommendations. 

Authors Michael Creed and Rob Whitley, in a paper published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, called these results "a welcome development". 

If you are in distress, please contact your nearest distress centre . If it is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency department.

Here’s a news policy that’s overdue for the scrapheap: ‘We don’t cover suicide’

Time was when suicide prevention advocates thought the less said about suicide, the fewer there would be. A stifling fear of contagion reigned, although the most reliable studies tend to show that contagion mostly applies to method, rather than suicide impulse. On the internet one can still find well-intentioned organizations that urge newspapers never to put suicide on the front page, not to praise or use photos of people who have killed themselves, not to include the S-word in any headline, as though giving any publicity to a death by suicide would make others want to kill themselves. 

It’s time to toss that taboo, without feeling guilty about it. Suicide experts consulted for this project want us to throw more light on the 9th leading cause of death in Canada, and the second biggest killer of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 19. It’s not that the youth suicide rate is rising – because it isn’t. But a stubbornly high death rate surely merits some old-fashioned journalistic attention. Would we still shy away if another cause lay behind so many tragic deaths? 

Suicide is hardly ever straightforward and one event alone is seldom the cause. Mental disorder is thought to be a factor in about 90% of cases. Young people, by and large, are particularly susceptible to mental illness and to thoughts of suicide, and they have received a good deal of media attention in recent years. But the young are not the biggest demographic in the suicide story. More middle-aged men kill themselves than any other group.
It’s not something you’re likely to gather from most news coverage - another reason why we need a more factual approach. For current advice to journalists on covering suicide from Tim Wall, André Picard and Michael Kirby, click on the video icon on the right. 


As a journalism student in 2010, Liam Casey wrote a widely-praised article about reporting on suicide for the Ryerson Journalism Review. He revealed that he had contemplated killing himself five years earlier, while struggling with depression. The work earned him the prize for Best New Writer at the 2012 National Magazine Awards. 

In four years with the Toronto Star, he wrote a series about problems in the mental health system. He also wrote from time to time about suicide, which some at the paper were still reluctant to cover. Early in 2014 he won plaudits for his forthright but sensitive coverage of the death by suicide of former Ontario cabinet minister George Smitherman’s husband, Christopher Peloso. The piece below was written especially for Mindset

Covering suicide can help save lives. It's science. 

By Liam Casey

One late night several years ago I walked around Toronto, tears creeping, in the cold, under darkness. I was usually exhausted, but not this night. I couldn’t relax. My hands shook and my thoughts bounced around like a bunch of mosquitoes trapped in my brain.

So I walked, hoping the cool air would calm the buzz in my brain. I wandered through the quiet streets and dark parks until I ended up on the tracks. My life would be better in death. I lay down on the cold tracks, the wood hard as random rocks pressed into my back. So I waited. Click here to continue reading...

(Liam Casey is now a reporter/editor at 
The Canadian Press)


The contagion theory – once widely accepted by media in Canada and elsewhere – is now widely challenged, because it isn’t borne out in the long run by independent statistics. When the media mostly stopped covering suicides, there was no clearly commensurate drop in deaths. And although Canadian media have paid growing attention in the past few years to instances of teen suicide, the overall suicide rate among teens remains strikingly stable.

Globe & Mail columnist André Picard, considered by many the dean of Canadian health reporters, shared his own thoughts on suicide reporting and contagion in an interview with Mindset. Click right image.

Once reluctance to cover suicide is discarded, the topic becomes fertile ground for important journalistic inquiry. An example is a three-part series that appeared in the Toronto Star in 2017, highlighting shortcomings in the way Ontario universities and the provincial government, dealt with mental health issues and suicide on campus. 

Reporter Peter Goffin’s explanation of how the series came to be written incidentally describes a newsroom culture far removed from what the suicide reporting taboo had generally fostered: 

"In February 2017 I got a tip about a series of student suicides at Guelph University, from a concerned parent who had read a recent series of mine on access to mental health care. In reporting that story, I uncovered significant conflicts that, it seemed, would be common to campuses across the province: University staff openly acknowledged they were struggling to meet booming student demand for help with increasingly complex mental health issues; Students were incensed, not only by the lack of accessible, adequate mental health services, but with the university’s lack of communication and transparency in the wake of the suicides; and lastly, no one at the university or in government was keeping track of suicides among post-secondary students.                                   

"At the suggestion of a colleague and mentor at the Star, I set out to understand how other schools were handling those issues, and surveyed every university in Ontario about their approach to tracking student suicides and serving student mental health needs. This series was the result of that survey, combined with input from students, mental health leaders and university administrators on how to build a better campus mental health system and, most importantly, the lived experience of students and families who had lived through mental health crisis and suicide.


Read Peter Goffin’s series:

         Part 1        Part 2       Part 3 

(Peter Goffin is now a reporter/editor with
The Canadian Press)


Gemma Richardson had a journalism degree from Carleton and a Master’s degree from the University of Windsor before working on a media studies doctorate at Western. She made an historical study of suicide reporting by some of Canada’s leading newspapers, stretching back more than a century. The work provides enlightening background and historical perspective to the news media’s current re-think on suicide coverage. She prepared a shortened version of her work for Mindset. Here's an extract from her conclusions:

"Suicide was not always taboo in the media. In fact, the silencing and tip-toeing around reporting on suicide only began to occur in the mid-20th century. Once suicide became an untouchable subject in newsrooms the stigma became entrenched, making it hard to address in any meaningful way for decades."                                               


Recent media attention to youth suicide usually hasn't included much context. Much has been made of immediate 'causes', especially when bullying is involved. Yet - as noted earlier - it is widely understood among specialists that young people are more predisposed than others to mental illness and to thoughts of suicide, partly because adolescence is often rough; partly because the young in general tend to live more in the moment, with less consideration of the future; and partly because young brains are still being formed, and growth brings its own uncertainties into play - nurture and nature often combining to make adolescent life notoriously difficult in the short term.
When parents face the devastating loss of a child, some retreat and some
pour their grief into public campaigns against the purported cause, and journalists often provide sympathetic and uncritical coverage of what can be an oversimplified message. It’s an aspect of suicide coverage that Tim Wall, executive director of the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention, finds troubling. Click on the video frame on the right to hear him explain. 

Covering youth suicide was a major theme at the 2014 Joseph Howe Symposium in Halifax. The event is presented annually by the Journalism School at the University of King’s College. The October, 2014 version Time to Talk – Media, Youth and Mental Health was organized in association with the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. (More coverage of the symposium can be found in Recent Events.)
A panel discussion focused on the widely-reported suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons. The panel included Rehtaeh’s step-father, Glen Canning, and Halifax Chronicle reporters Frances Willick and Selena Ross.  Click on the photo on the right for video of part of the extensive discussion.
Another panel member, Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and Professor of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University, told journalism students there’s a need for rigorous evaluation of suicide prevention strategies. 
Click on the photo on the left to hear his argument.



Journalism’s traditionally blunt attitude towards intrusion into a family’s grief after sudden death has undergone adjustments recently, with hard questions about the purpose it serves being posed in journalism ethics journals and classes. While any sudden death is traumatic for the survivors, a death by suicide often carries with it for families an additional load of feelings of guilt.

When a suicide death is newsworthy, should reporters hold back from interviewing family members in the immediate aftermath? Tim Wall asks journalists to adopt a humane approach, because of the extra damage he says they can cause. Click left for more. 


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