Raising awareness to safe messaging practices and approaches to prevent suicide are essential components of the CAST Program suicide prevention model.
Whether delivering a speech or presentation, communicating through print, or posting on social media platforms – public communication about suicide requires care and consideration.
Become Aware of Best Practices
A growing body of evidence suggests that certain elements of public messaging about suicide can have unintended effects, such as normalizing or glamorizing suicide, which has been linked to suicide contagion.
Contagion can be understood as the increase in suicide-related behaviour that is the result of inappropriate exposure to suicide. Youth (ages 24 and younger) are particularly vulnerable to this phenomena.
Therefore, to reduce the likelihood of contagion, anyone addressing suicide publicly should be familiar with best practices for communicating about suicide.
All public communication about suicide should convey the message that suicide is preventable and that help is available. Remember, the overall goal of public awareness about suicide should be prevention.
Consider Intentions Before Starting
Before you begin crafting your public awareness, educational, or media message, have clear intentions about what you want to communicate. It is also helpful to consult with professionals and those who will be most impacted by these messages, such as family members or the target audience.
Remember, all public messages regarding suicide should focus on hope and encourage help seeking.
Avoid Simplifying – Provide Factual Information
Providing evidence-based information is important in reducing stigma and challenging harmful myths. For example, avoid presenting suicide as inexplicable or the result of one stressful situation. Communicate that there are typically many factors involved when people die by suicide.
When possible, share information about risk factors and warning signs to communicate the complexity of suicide.
Use Sensitive & Appropriate Language
The language we use when talking about suicide is important. Certain phrases can contribute to the stigma and shame associated with suicide.
For example, the phrase “committed suicide” refers to a time when suicide was considered both illegal and sinful by law and religion, respectively. Rather than “committed suicide,” the terms “died by suicide,” “completed suicide,” or “suicided” are suggested. These phrases avoid moral judgement and solely describe the action that took place.
It is also suggested to avoid using the term “successful suicide” as this does not reflect reality. Suicide is always a tragedy and should never be described as an accomplishment.
Likewise, to describe a suicide attempt that does not result in death as a “failure” is also misleading. It is best to use the phrases “attempted suicide” or “non-fatal suicide attempt.”
While discussing the prevalence of suicide may seem like an appropriate means of increasing awareness, it is important to consider the negative possibilities, such as normalizing suicide as a common response to life’s stressors. This can happen if suicide is described as a common or inevitable event.
Instead, focus on messages of hope and prevention. For example, communicate the importance of seeking help from a trusted source (e.g. a guidance counsellor or mental health professional) when having thoughts of suicide or feeling distressed.
Extensive coverage of a suicide death and the use of dramatic messaging and/or images can glamorize suicide. To abstain from glamorization, avoid specific details (e.g., means of suicide), place of death, or making making sensationalized statements about the suicide (e.g., “It was the only thing they could do to find happiness and peace”).
Also, present a balanced view of the person who has died by suicide. Include admirable traits and accomplishments, as well as the things that he or she struggled with (e.g., mental illness, substance abuse issue, etc.). Distinguish between the person’s positive qualities and the final act of suicide.
Messages about suicide should always encourage help-seeking. Always be clear that help is available; it is just a matter of connecting.
Highlight positive examples of people who have overcome thoughts of suicide and encourage reaching out to those they are concerned about. Being proactive can reduce the stigma associated with suicide and help-seeking.
When possible, share information about protective factors or factors that reduce someone’s risk of suicide (e.g., social support, problem solving skills, access to mental health care, etc.).
Public discussions about suicide can be very upsetting to some for a variety of reasons, including a current mental health issue, a lost loved one, or one’s own thoughts of suicide.
A direct way to encourage help seeking is to offer resources that individuals experiencing thoughts of suicide can access. For example, provide a list of accessible and suicide-prevention trained services and organizations available in your area at public events (contact CAST for described list). Always be sure to at least provide contact information for the local crisis service or the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team at (902) 429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167 (Toll Free).
Having trained volunteers at public events regarding suicide can also be beneficial (e.g. people with ASIST Training). These volunteers can act as ‘safe people’ with whom participants struggling or having thoughts of suicide can connect with.
For more information on best practices for public awareness and education efforts for suicide prevention, please see Suicide Prevention: Guidelines For Public Awareness and Educational Activities, developed by the Manitoba Government.