Guideline for responsible reporting on mental illness and suicide

Yangyel Lhaden

More than 80 people take their life in Bhutan every year. Many, due to reasons myriad, go unreported.

Because suicide and mental illness are sensitive subjects, reporting and writing about these issues require extreme care beginning with as simple as choice of words to avoid imitation and other damaging psychological impacts in the society.

Journalists’ Association of Bhutan (JAB), together with Bhutan Media Foundation, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, has come up with “Media Guideline for the Responsible Reporting of Mental Illness and Suicide” to help journalists write about these issues responsibly.

The guideline includes principle of sensitivity and realistic portrayals of mental illness and suicide.

According to JAB officials, the role of the guideline was not to limit press freedom but that it should serve as a template for standardised reporting and messaging about mental illness and suicide.

According to a World Health Organisation guideline for media professionals sensationalised front-page news story on suicides increased suicide cases in many societies. Systematic reviews of these studies showed that media reports on suicide could lead to imitative behaviour.

Dr Chencho Dorji, psychiatrist, said that the exposure to contagion—suicide or suicidal behaviour through media report—triggers similar past incidences in readers and this could increase suicidal behaviour in that person.

He also said that people psychologically were drawn to read such stories because it addressed human’s core issue: survival instinct.

“The media can take this opportunity to educate the people and create awareness rather than focusing on the death of the person,” he said.

How to report mental  illness and suicide cases?

Do’s

Emphasise that suicide is preventable and mental illness is treatable.

Privacy should be given to the subject and the family.

The methodology on how person took his/her own life should not be presented.

The report should create awareness with information, warning signs, and helpline numbers.

Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about cases.

Convey suicide as a complex issue.

Convey suicide as public health concern rather than portraying it as a crime.

Use correct terminology: “died by suicide” or “took his/her own life” not “committed suicide”.

Avoid using “crazy”, “choe-lo” or “psycho” to describe mentally ill person.

Avoid usage of language that sensationalise or normalises suicide. Instead, present a solution to the problem and educate the people.

Don’ts

Sensationalised heading or glorify suicide or mental illness.

Publish the news on front page.

Depict suicide as being more common than it is.

Judge the deceased or imply that he/she was effective in achieving the goal.

Over simplify the causes of death by the last cause of death.

Disclose the identity of the deceased.

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