In the United States, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among Americans. According to the CDC, in 2018, there were 48,344 suicides among Americans, making it one of the leading causes of death.
When it comes to the public relations industry, suicide can be a hard topic to discuss. Organizations like The National Suicide Prevention Hotline and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention promote Suicide Awareness Month in September as a time to reach out to those who have been impacted by suicide loss or are struggling with suicidal thoughts themselves.
There are four guidelines that public relations professionals can follow when communicating about the topic of suicide.
The first guideline is to not sensationalize the topic. Use non-sensationalized terms and life-giving language. According to Bob VandePol of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, “It is best to avoid images that glamorize the death such as photos/videos of the location or method of death or grieving family and friends.” Be aware of writing headlines about suicide. Graphic headlines such as “Whitney Houston Used Sleeping Pills to Commit Suicide” would be better worded as “Whitney Houston dead at 48.”
The second guideline is to avoid misinformation. Instead, provide education. Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent divorce, failing classes, or losing job. Also, avoid describing a suicide as inexplicable or “without warning.” “Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide,” Vandepol suggests.
The third guideline is to not share inflammatory details. Do not cite the content found in a suicide note or any form of writing left by the person involved. It is better to cite: “A note was found from the deceased and is being reviewed by medical examiners.”
The fourth and final guideline is to offer hope. Use the story as an opportunity to educate readers about suicide, but to also inform readers about the causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in suicide rates and recent treatment advances. It would be best to also include means of accessing such resources in the story.
Take some time to participate in conversations about suicide prevention to further educate yourself, educate others and potentially help someone who needs it.
Corbin L. Smith is a junior journalism and mass communications major at Samford University. He is studying public relations and advertising along with a minor in business marketing. Follow him on Instagram @corbinlukesmith and connect with him on LinkedIn.