Suicide and Mental Health: The Media’s Obligations

For many years the topic of mental health has been a “taboo topic” in media coverage. However, accompanied by recent shifts in parliamentary and public opinion has facilitated a much more liberalistic and compassionate society. Although forever present, mental health has only recently been acknowledged by medical professionals and accepted as a “real” condition within society. With one in every five Australians being affected by some sort of mental health condition (Mindframe National Media Initiative 2014), it is important that adequate guidelines are in place to regulate reporting, however it is of equal importance that the media is used to spread awareness on the topic, allowing for more people to be educated and knowing when to seek help.

Although not modern society’s majority view, mental health has been viewed in the past as a myth or made up. In the Myth of Mental Illness (1961, p. 45), psychiatrist Thomas Szasz argues that “that the idea of classifying psychological and emotional difficulties as “illnesses” takes away personal agency”, and that “instead of holding people personally and ethically responsible for their actions, he contends, doctors attempt to ‘treat’ the person, often with medications.” This ideology raises the issue of attributing blame to a person with mental illness, which can be seen throughout today’s media. ABC’s Paul Kennedy (2018) published an article recommending that a change in terminology when reporting on issues such as suicide is necessary. Kennedy states that phrases such as “taking their own life”, and “committing suicide” are inappropriate and attribute blame to the victim. He suggests a more appropriate choice of words would be “dying from suicide”. Suicide is comparable to other common diseases causing death, and you wouldn’t say someone who died from diabetes ate

themselves to death. Kennedy believes that it is not only the public’s job to remove mental health’s stigma, but also media practitioners. “When we say things like ‘killed himself’ or ‘took their own life’ what we’re doing is attributing blame and that really creates a stigma” (Kennedy, 2018). Therefore, it is essential that when media practitioners are reporting on issues such as suicide, they carefully consider and review the article’s language, tone, and purpose due to the influence it may have on public opinion.

Although society’s modern outlook on mental health is positive, and facilitated greater acceptance, education and awareness of these conditions, it is not just personal ethics that matter, but also rules and regulations particularly surrounding its media coverage. After decades of various journalists campaigning, the Press Council finally updated their policy in relation to suicide reporting. In 2011 they added into their Standards of Practice various principles, outlining how and when the reporting of suicide should be done. This includes requirements such as consent, privacy, and public interest to be considered when determining if it is ethically appropriate to report on a certain issue. However, these rules are “not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest” (Press Council 2011). The Press Council believes that although it is important to respect the victim and others affected by a tragedy, it is equally important that that awareness and knowledge of these issues is made known to the public. For example, “It may help to improve public understanding of causes and warning signs, have a deterrent effect on people contemplating suicide, bring comfort to affected relatives or friends, or promote further public or private action to prevent suicide” (Press Council 2011). In an article published by the ABC following these changes, “Estelle Dragun, mother of Channel Ten’s Sydney-based Perth newsreader Charmaine Dragun who took her own life almost four years ago welcomed the decision” (2011). Ms Dragun says there needs to be a greater awareness

that suicide is a big issue in Australia. “For instance, every six hours someone is attempting to take their life and that is really huge” (2011). In the same article, Suicide Prevention Australia’s Michael Dudley agrees that raising awareness is essential, as “We need to understand this issue; we need to understand its extent, its causes, the warning signs; we need to understand the effects it has on people who go through it and we need to be able to bring comfort to those people and also promote further action to prevent suicide,” (2011). Therefore, with the Press Council’s adding of guidelines when reporting on cases involving mental health, specifically suicide we are able to see how the media’s change in regulations has facilitated positive, fair, and ethically suitable articles to be published. This is not only helpful for the victims involved but also the public in understanding and rationalising a very hard to digest topic.

Although the stigma surrounding mental health still exists, over the last decade it has lifted substantially. With changes in societal values, as shifting regulations regarding its media coverage, this stigma will soon be fully lifted and seen like many other illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease or the common cold. With continued support from the media and frequent education, society will one day be ridden of the stigma that is mental health.


Reference List:

  • –  Mindframe National Media Initiative 2014, Facts and stats about mental illness in Australia, viewed 4 June 2018, <http://www.mindframe->.
  • –  Szasz, T 1961, ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’, p. 45.
  • –  Kennedy, P 2018, ‘The way the media reports on suicide is changing —and it’s about time’, ABC News, 10 January, viewed 4 June 2018, < suicide-is-changing/9316704>.
  • –  The Press Council 2011, Standard: Suicide Reporting, New South Wales, viewed 4 June 2018.

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