Mental Health: Suicide prevention, the role of the media

The media can, however, have a positive impact on suicidal behaviour and aid in suicide prevention.

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in, which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can workproductively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Our ability to hope and set goals and pursue our dreams is an integral part of maintaining mental health and wellbeing.

Suicide is the cause of over 700,000 deaths worldwide each year and several countries in Africa have some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

The work of media professionals plays an important role in shaping cultural narratives and the stories told in the media can be part of suicide prevention approaches.

The impact of media on suicides

Research has shown that when a suicide is reported, there is a significant increase in deaths by suicide and suicide attempts in the community that accesses that report.

This effect is known as the suicide contagion and the suicides are known as copycat suicides.

The effect is more pronounced when:

  • The story or article is repeated frequently and is placed prominently in a paper or in a news bulletin
  •  The story or article reinforces myths or misconceptions about suicide
  •  The story or article concerns the suicide of a prominent person, public figure or a celebrity
  •  The story or article gives explicit details about the method used in the suicide or other details such as the contents of a suicide note
  •  Vulnerable populations such as young people, people struggling with mental health challenges such depression or substance use problems

Digital media can have a particularly harmful effect on suicidal behaviour as it increases access to information on suicide methods and there are sites that even encourage suicide or recruit people, particularly young people to attempt suicide.

The media can, however, have a positive impact on suicidal behaviour and aid in suicide prevention.

Responsible reporting has been seen to reduce the rate of copy-cat suicides.

Media guidelines such as the World Health Organisation’s recently released media guidelines ‘Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals’, can help aid journalists, editors, news directors and other media professionals to report on suicide in a manner that gives hope.

Stories or articles that give some aspects of where to get help for mental health or emotional challenges; recovery from mental ill health; coping in adversity and hope can reduce suicidal behaviour and give alternative ways of thinking to those at risk.

Recommendations on what best to do when reporting on suicides

Media guidelines recommend the following concerning responsible reporting of suicides:

  1. Avoid sensational language or images when reporting a suicide
  2. Avoid oversimplifying the reason behind the suicide. This can strengthen misconceptions about suicide
  3. Do not provide explicit details about the method used, or details of last words or a suicide note
  4. Avoid normalising or romanticising suicide as a solution for some
  5. Do provide information about the facts about suicide and its causes
  6. Be sensitive to the family, friends and loved ones of the deceased during interviews and in the details published. Children of the deceased should not be involved in media stories.
  7. Balance stories with dissemination of information as well as educational information on coping strategies and how to get help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health challenges.

Try and end stories with some hope.

If you think that you or someone that you know maybe struggling with suicidal thoughts or any other mental health challenge, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.


  • Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback on WhatsApp: +263714987729

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