WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the phenomenon of "suicide contagion," a panel of medical and media experts urged journalists Thursday to change the way they cover suicide to prevent contributing to copycat cases.
In a report released Thursday and endorsed by the surgeon general and the National Institute of Mental Health, the panel cited scientific evidence showing that rates of suicides and suicide attempts rise after high-profile or frequent news coverage of an instance of suicide.
"Research has established that the way in which the media covers stories about suicides has an influence on the suicidal behavior of those who are vulnerable," said Dr. Herbert Hendin, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Suicide is primarily a mental health issue, and media coverage should emphasize the role that mental disorders--including depression, mood disorders and substance abuse--play in a large majority of suicides, the report said.
By focusing on mental health issues, the media could make potentially suicidal individuals aware of treatment options for their conditions, experts said.
"Stories of suicide will not serve the public interest when they treat suicide as an intriguing mystery or inexplicable event, or simplify it to a romantic disappointment, academic problems or frustration at work," Hendin said.
"Such stories usually fail to convey the mental illness that is known to be implicated in over 90% of all suicides and that treatments are available now for these illnesses."
Surgeon General David Satcher, who labeled suicide a major public health problem when he released the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention earlier this year, affirmed his support for the media guidelines.
About 80 people a day and up to 30,000 a year commit suicide in the U.S., Satcher said. About 650,000 Americans attempt suicide each year.
Satcher said the media's coverage poses "both the problem and the hope" for battling suicide and the mental illnesses that lead to it.
"The hope [is] that by early diagnosis and effective treatment, we can in fact prevent many suicides," he said. "But the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide continues to create a major barrier to suicide prevention."
Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, said he thinks most papers already are "very careful in their handling" of suicide stories.
But Bhatia, who is secretary of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, noted that certain sensational suicides will inevitably attract a great deal of coverage, citing a case in which a couple hanged themselves from a downtown Portland bridge.
"We can't ignore the news; that's not what our readers want of us," Bhatia said. "But certainly we can exercise caution in approaching such things, and I think that's what we do."
The report contains a number of specific recommendations that it says journalists should adopt to alleviate copycat suicides.
Describing suicide methods in detail, playing up romantic or heroic elements of a suicide and misrepresenting troubled victims as healthy high-achieving people are all practices that should be curtailed, the report said. It instead suggests acknowledging struggles and illnesses the victim may have faced that led to a suicide attempt.
Suicide stories also ought to shy from an excessive focus on grieving relatives, friends and community members, the report said. By doing this, the media would avoid encouraging suicide as a method of attracting attention or retaliating against loved ones, the report said.
The report also recommended that journalists keep references to suicide in the body of a story and not in headlines and use the terms "suicide deaths" and "nonfatal attempts" instead of "successful" or "failed" suicides.
The report was prepared by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which developed the guidelines while consulting with reporters and editors during a series of focus groups.
The Annenberg Center's director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, outlined a three-year strategy to disseminate the report to journalists. It will be made available on the Web sites of several mental and public health agencies that are frequently consulted in suicide stories, Jamieson said.