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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Sensitivity? Or sensationalism?

Sensitivity or sensationalism?  Language,  a powerful shaper of attitudes, opinions and value judgements,  perpetuates and reinforces stigma and negative stereotypes that merely sensationalizes a complex issue such as suicide. Sensitive and informed reporting on suicide destigmatises the taboo, secrecy, shame and silence around suicide, and creates safe, supportive and compassionate spaces for suicide prevention.

“One might argue that there is nothing really alarming about the words themselves (such as “committed suicide”), and that they are standard descriptions of a tragic act. This was certainly true for me before I was attuned to the finer nuances and deeper connotations of these descriptions. When we read or hear about a suicide, these are the phrases that most of us see and hear. In the case of “commit suicide,” it is so common and widely accepted that one could almost expect a hyphen between the words,  if it were grammatically correct to do so.”

– Robert Olson in Suicide and Language.

  • “Commit suicide”
  • “suicide victim”
  • “suicide attempter”
  • “successful suicide”
  • “failed suicide attempt”
  • “political suicide”
  • “suicide epidemic”
  • “completed suicide.”

When you come across these phrases, do you find them insensitive? Do you ever pause and wonder how it would impact those affected/traumatized by suicide such as those who have lost a loved one to suicide or those who have tried to end their lives? Or do they seem acceptable and familiar to you?

Chances are that unless you have been impacted in some way by suicide, you might wonder, what’s in a  word? Well, apparently, a  lot.  In my two years as a suicide prevention activist, the insensitivity of people to suicide and suicide-related issues never ceases to appall me. However, the following instance simply stunned me!

A couple of years back, I was invited to speak at a Women’s Day Function, sponsored by a well-known radio broadcast station. At the end of my speech, the Radio Jockey (RJ) who compered the programme praised me for inspiring people, particularly women. Especially, as he put it, “Her husband had committed suicide.

This incident highlights several problematic issues regarding the portrayal of suicide in public discourse and the impact of irresponsible reporting of suicide.  First, it was insensitive of the RJ to reveal my status as a survivor of suicide loss without my consent,  because I had chosen not to reveal it in my speech, as it did not seem relevant in that context. By doing so, he had made an out-of-context reference to suicide, merely sensationalised it and played to the gallery  for “shock value.” Secondly, the use of the phrase “committed suicide” placed it in a context of criminality and illegality that only perpetuated the taboo around the issue. Although he might have argued that his intention was “noble,” its impact on me was violative and intrusive.

However, I must admit that until I was personally impacted by suicide loss, I too was unaware of the ways in which language perpetuates and reinforces stigma and negative stereotypes. As a communications professional in the disability and LGBTQIA+ spaces, I am familiar with the use of people-first language. People-first language puts people first before a disease or disability. For example, we say, a person with mental illness or a person living with mental illness. This is considered appropriate, sensitive and preferable to the outdated and inappropriate, although widely used word,  mentally ill.

Language is power. It is a powerful shaper of attitudes, opinions and value judgements. And words are not as innocuous as they seem. Embedded in every word is a range of connotations or word associations. They influence, shape and define societal attitudes toward any issue, particularly mental disability, suicide and HIV/AIDS, gender identity and sexual orientation issues — which  tend to be perceived in a morality framework with connotations of character flaw, moral and cardinal sin.

Two years ago, I read Robert Olson’s remark that the usage of “commit suicide” is so common that one could be excused if one thought that the word was hyphenated. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me. My background in social sciences communications had attuned me cognitively to sensitive and appropriate use of language. However, my new reality as a survivor of suicide loss helped me make an instant switch too.

That was the moment when I stopped using the word “committed suicide.” And I didn’t stop with that. Every time I hear anybody use “committed suicide”—and this includes most mental health professionals too—I politely but firmly request them to stop using the phrase and replace it  with substitute phrases like “death by suicide” or “died by suicide.” I even engage in a conversation with them in case they are curious. Most of them are. Have I brought about a social transformation? No. Not yet. We all know that there is no mantra for attitudinal transformation. But at least I am trying. I refuse to be part of a conspiracy of stigma, shame secrecy and silence around suicide.

It takes people with a lived experience of suicide and suicide loss to spearhead social change. Currently mainstream narratives of suicide locate it in a context of criminality or sin. As a result of the associated stigma, people with suicidal ideation are hesitant to seek professional help. In addition, those impacted by suicide loss are fearful of speaking about their loss because of social disapproval, blame and condemnation.

Doris Sommer Rotenberg, a suicide prevention activist, is a person with lived experience of suicide loss. Having lost her son Arthur Sommer Rotenberg, an accomplished physician to suicide, she established the Arthur Sommer-Rotenburg Chair in Suicide Studies in the University of Toronto, the first in North America. She speaks forcefully about the need to decouple the language of suicide from morality and sin.

“Commit suicide. Two words facilely used to describe the act of self-killing…I had never questioned the use of this phrase until my son took his life… We might begin by considering the words we use to describe this destructive act—particularly the phrase ‘commit suicide’… The expression ‘to commit suicide’ is morally imprecise. Its connotation of illegality and dishonor intensifies the stigma attached to the one who died as to those who have been traumatized by this loss. It does nothing to convey the fact that suicide is [often] the tragic outcome of depressive illness and this, like any other affliction of the body or mind, has in itself no moral weight…. Suicide has been demonized as a metaphor for moral weakness and failure. Many people consider any form of psychological vulnerability, including depression, as a moral lapse.”

We therefore need a new vocabulary based on safe messaging principles to create supportive spaces for compassionate conversations on suicide. We need stigma-reducing, people-first language to replace the stigma, shame, secrecy and silence around suicide.

Our communication about suicide must highlight that across the world, suicide is a serious public health issue. Hence it needs to be anchored in the language of compassion, respect and dignity, not morality. For those of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, the most common question people ask us is “Why did it happen? What was the reason?”

I find this a promising entry point for candid conversations on suicide. For most people, the idea that a convergence of multiple factors, not just one ‘reason’, leads to suicide is still radical because it flouts conventional suicide stereotypes. Nevertheless, it is important to provide people with a context to the many factors that contribute to the issue that is suicide., and enable them to mull over its complexity.

Suicide prevention is a daunting challenge. Effective suicide prevention efforts require a convergence of various stakeholders—health care providers, law enforcement, traditional and social media, government, private sector,  research organizations, social agencies, religious leaders, families, people with lived experience, and communities.

Suicide is a complex and complicated issue with long-term physical, psychological, social and emotional consequences for survivors of suicide attempts and survivors of suicide loss.   According to the World Health Organization (2018) globally, around 800,000 people die of suicide every year and at least six people are impacted by every suicide loss.

The media, by its enormous reach and influence in shaping and influencing public opinion and initiating attitudinal shifts has a huge role in this matter. However, when we initiated SPEAK, the Madurai-based suicide prevention initiative of the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, we invited media professionals in the city for a programme on responsible reporting of suicide in the media. Only two people turned up!

But I persist with dogged perseverance. We need to keep chipping away at the looming mountain of stigma, even if it means chipping away a tiny bit every time. We need to keep tilling the field, sowing the seeds of attitudinal change, watering and fertilizing the field—one step at a time.

“The language we used to describe suicide not only reflects our own attitude but influences those attitudes as well the attitudes of others. A change in the words we use will not immediately dispel deep-seated prejudices, but it will inhibit their expression and in doing so, prepare the ground for attitudinal change,” writes Doris Sommer-Rotenberg.

Here are a set of non-negotiable guidelines for responsible and sensitive reporting of suicide in the media.

Focus on accurate and responsible reporting of suicide: Suicide is a taboo shrouded in the 4S: stigma, shame, secrecy and silence. Reporting on suicide because it is newsworthy and thereby sensationalizing, normalizing, and glorifying it or presenting suicide as a solution to problems only perpetuates myths and misconceptions.

Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide: Suicide is the result of a convergence of multiple factors—biological, psychological, social and environmental. It is never the result of any one factor. However, most media reports focus on that one single factor—the failure in exam or difficult interpersonal relationships, for example—as the ‘cause’ for suicide when in reality it is only a trigger.

Describe suicide trends accurately, and without alarm: Use denotative language; not hyperbole. For example, suicide is rising, but not epidemic, or skyrocketing.

Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide:  Suicide is neither a crime nor a sin. Nor is it an act of cowardice or heroism. Extending the same logic, suicide victims and survivors of suicide attempts are neither heroes, ‘zero’s or cowards. According to the American Association of Suicidology, “The primary goal of suicide is not to end life; but to end pain.”

Avoid using the word suicide in headlines and prominent placement of the story in the front page or the crime page: Once again, this is being aware of the need to steer clear of newsworthiness vs. sensationalism. The latter would trigger vulnerable people to attempt suicide, especially if it is a celebrity suicide. Use neutral headlines. While the curiosity factor is inevitable, so is the need for sensitivity and responsibility. If you feel compelled to include some relevant detail, report it low in the story, but avoid placing it prominently.

Avoid insensitive use of language: Language mirrors thoughts and in turn, reflects societal attitudes. Avoid using words such as “committed suicide” (situates suicide in the context of criminality), out of context use of suicide and insensitive usage such as “unsuccessful suicide” and hyperbolic usage such as “suicide epidemic” or “political suicide.” These only reinforce negative stereotypes of suicide. Instead, a sensitive and informed usage addresses them head on. For example, instead of “committed suicide” say “died of suicide or death by suicide.” Instead of “suicide epidemic” use “increasing rates of suicide.”

Avoid explicit description of the method of suicide: These violate the dignity and privacy of the deceased and their families. Besides they are potential triggers for people with suicidal ideation.

Avoid using pictures or videos of the deceased and their families and publishing suicide notes: Survivors of suicide loss are often traumatized by the incident. These are violative of their dignity and privacy. The dignity of the deceased is equally important. If required, use a picture of the person from earlier times.

Provide information on where to seek help: Including a comprehensive list of resources of where to seek help sends out a strong message that suicide is preventable. Include information that is relevant for suicide attempt survivors to enable them to seek appropriate psycho social intervention and support and for survivors of suicide loss to rebuild their lives after the tragedy.

Show consideration for survivors of suicide loss: Refrain from asking for interviews, sound bytes and photographs in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Their pain and their dignity are non-negotiable. Your newsworthiness is not.

Weave in the larger issues surrounding suicide: This is a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness about the public health aspect of suicide. Include relevant statistics, quote experts in suicidology and mental health, and include boxes about the warning signs of suicide and how every person can help in prevention.

Anchor stories in optimism and hope: Suicide is not a life sentence. Include testimonials from experts about how suicide can be prevented with timely intervention. Also include testimonials from suicide attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss who have rebuilt their lives with appropriate intervention and moved through the tragedy to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

And last but certainly not least, please don’t judge or label what most of us cannot even remotely understand unless we have had the lived experience.


Reporting On Suicide – Poynter

Preventing Suicide: A Resource for media professionals: WHO and International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) 2008.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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