Why safe reporting on suicide matters

A fan places flowers in front of the home of actor and comedian Robin Williams in Tiburon, California, on Aug. 12. Williams committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt, local law enforcement said. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A fan places flowers in front of the home of actor and comedian Robin Williams in Tiburon, California, on Aug. 12. Williams committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt, local law enforcement said. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The death earlier this week of actor and comedian Robin Williams again brought into the spotlight the pitfalls of reporting on suicide.

His death was described by local law enforcement officials as a suicide by hanging.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and a major public health issue in the United States. (Read CDC’s factsheet on suicide.)

When media report on the suicide of public figures, it raises the possibility of “copycat” suicides. So a group of mental health and suicide prevention specialists released a set of recommendations for reporters covering this issue.

For example, the guidelines say not to put the method of suicide in the headline, and to avoid calling it an “epidemic.”

Romanticizing suicide in the media also could encourage others to commit the act, according to the journalism organization the Poynter Institute.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences raised eyebrows when it tweeted after Williams’ death, “Genie, you’re free.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention highlighted two studies in Vienna, Austria, that showed an 80 percent drop in subway suicides after a campaign encouraged responsible reporting.

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