Normalising Suicide Raises the Risk

Ministry of Health (MOH) guidelines discourage talking about suicide in the classroom, while other organisations disagree and claim that talking about it helps.. It is a complex issue with inconclusive evidence.

  • The MOH developed media guidelines in 1999 and.published a 54-page booklet, "Suicide and the Media".
  • Groups such as Project Hope promote suicide awareness and peer support.
  • Both Project Hope and former Yellow Ribbon claim that students prefer the "awareness" approach, because it conforms with their reality.
  • Suicide Prevention Information Service (SPINZ) promote suicide prevention and identifying at-risk youth.
There is concern as to whether talking about suicide may somehow "normalise" it, encouraging vulnerable people to wonder whether it might be an acceptable way to escape the burden of their troubles.

There is also controversy over whether media coverage of suicides encourages further "copycat" suicides.

This is a complex area examined by many suicide experts and because it is complex, the evidence is inconclusive.

However, some studies do indicate media prudence and caution is required when covering suicides.

For example, a 2003 study of "celebrity culture" in Britain, found that one-in-three people strongly identified with their favourite celebrity with almost religious devotion. 

Thus concerns that the suicide death of a particular celebrity, might trigger copycat suicides has some validity. On the other hand, some say that better coverage of some aspects may make some people think twice before trying it. Aspects such as failed suicide attempts resulting in disfigurement and/or disability. Read here.

After the suicide of Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist of the American grunge band Nirvana, 5000 fans listened to a tape recording of Courtney Love reading the suicide note, and calling Kurt various foul names for killing himself.

There has been speculation that Love's negative and angry reaction to her husband's death may have prevented copycat suicides among his fans.

An Australian study examined the total rate of suicide in Australia for young people (aged 15?19 and 20?24 years) for the 30 day period after the announcement of Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994. It found there was no evidence of any increase in deaths from gunshot, the method used by Cobain.1

To address the concerns about media reporting, many countries and the World Health Organization have developed guidance material to encourage the safe reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media. 

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health's 1999 booklet, "Suicide and the Media: the reporting and portrayal of suicide in the media: a resource", is available through SPINZ, the Ministry of Health and the Mental Health Foundation.

The 54-page booklet is comprehensive, well presented and explains the complexities of what the research reveals, in a common sense way.

How suicide should be covered in the schools
There is a considerable divergence of opinion on this issue. The controversy arose with the emergence of Yellow Ribbon and Project Hope and their approach focused on making secondary school students "aware" of suicide.

This entails talking about it and hopefully learning strategies to cope with life's problems and help "at-risk" friends and schoolmates.

The directors of Project Hope and the former Yellow Ribbon Trust have both lost children and argue that their personal experience gives them a unique perspective.

On the other side is Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand (SPINZ), staffed by the Mental Health Foundation and the Ministry of Youth Affairs.

They focus on suicide "prevention", which aims to identify those at risk in a school and then help and support them through to recovery. The basis for this approach is research work undertaken by specialised academics at Canterbury University's Suicide Project Unit.

The problem
Project Hope and Yellow Ribbon have come under severe criticism for allegedly unsafe practices and an amateur approach. The Ministry of Education has warned schools, claiming that raising awareness normalises and potentially causes suicide.

In 2003, Project Hope distributed 130,000 copies of its materials to schools around New Zealand. Rick Stevenson, the director and his helpers posted them out and left it to the school guidance counsellors and principals, to use them or not. Some schools are openly supportive of Project Hope's programme.

Before closing in 2005 Yellow Ribbon operated in 140 schools, relying on school student volunteers, recruited as Yellow Ribbon "Ambassadors". They distributed yellow cards which an at-risk student could present to and be assisted by the school guidance counsellor.

Both groups are convinced that "talking" openly about suicide and building "awareness", is preferred by the students and conforms to the reality of their lives. One-on-one peer support is the most effective antidote to attempting suicide.

This approach is vigorously opposed by the official organisations, who claim that local and international scientific/academic research indicates that talking about suicide in the classroom is "unsafe" - and may generate an unhealthy interest in potentially at-risk students.

The 34-page "A Guide for Schools: young people at risk of suicide", was published in 2001 and gives practical guidance to school staff on identifying and managing vulnerable students.

1. Martin G. Koo L. Celebrity suicide: Did the death of Kurt Cobain influence young suicides in Australia? 
Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 3, Number 3, 1997, pp. 187-198(12)