Research has shown that certain ways of communicating about suicide, which we call “unsafe messaging,” can be harmful. In particular, when we say that suicide is an “epidemic,” we may make suicide-related behaviors seem more common than they actually are. Making these behaviors seem commonplace may lead to more people considering suicide.
Unsafe messaging can also contribute to suicide “contagion.” This contagion can happen when a suicide death or attempt is publicized in an unsafe way (often through media coverage) and as a result leads to other suicide deaths or attempts. Unsafe messaging includes descriptions that are sensational, detailed, and/or make the suicide death or attempt seem inevitable. Contagion most often happens with youth and young adults. To help avoid contagion, it is important that all individuals who are messaging about suicide (from media representatives to coalition members) use the safe suicide prevention messaging guidelines. Visit HHS.gov to learn more about suicide contagion.
Ultimately, it’s important for messages to emphasize that suicide can be prevented, help is available, people recover from periods of feeling suicidal, and we all have a role to play in prevention. Using this language is often called a “positive suicide prevention narrative.”
Key suicide prevention messaging do’s and don’ts:
This is a short list of key messaging guidelines. For additional safe messaging guidelines specific to your setting, visit the link in Step 1, below: Review message guidelines for specific settings.
There are a variety of safe suicide prevention message guidelines for different community settings. These include ones for use by the news media, by community messengers, and on social media. Make your communication work group and coalition aware of the guidelines for each setting you are trying to reach.
Visit the Framework for Successful Messaging Guidelines and use the filter bar to find the safe messaging guidelines that best fit your community settings. These guidelines are designed to be easy to apply and specific to the unique circumstances of different modes of communication.
Before doing any external communication, compare the draft of your writing or recording to the relevant safe message guidelines. Do this with draft communications for informal talking points, formal campaigns, or any other messaging. For example, if there is a suicide-related crisis in your community, reviewing the messaging guidelines can remind you to emphasize the following points:
The guidelines can help keep your messaging on track and help you avoid promoting a negative, harmful message.
Although it’s helpful to invite the media to join your coalition, some of them will not be able to. Try to develop relationships with news reporters, bloggers, and social media influencers throughout your community, including ones that reach diverse populations. Consistently share about the events, strategies, and campaigns your coalition is developing and promoting over time. Also let the media outlets know your coalition has experts available to be interviewed and people with lived experience who can tell their stories. Being consistently available for media appearances will help the local media identify your group as a primary information source.
For additional guidance on developing media relationships, visit this SAMHSA tip sheet on working with the media.
When a death by suicide occurs in a community, area news agencies often report on the incident, particularly if the individual was a well-known community member or a youth. In addition, when Mental Health Awareness Month (May) and Suicide Prevention Day/Week/Month (September) occur each year, many media agencies will run stories on suicide prevention.
Whenever media outlets want to tell stories about suicide prevention, share the relevant messaging guidelines with them. You can make it a practice to bring a print copy of the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide with you when asked to participate in an interview on suicide prevention and share those recommendations with the reporter drafting the story. Or if members of the media are participating in your suicide prevention coalition, you can send them the messaging guidelines relevant to their different settings before May and September each year.
If you have established relationships with the local media, and they recognize your group as the local experts on suicide prevention, they will likely appreciate your guidance and support. Taking time to build relationships with the media before sharing reporting guidelines will be key to the guidelines’ welcome reception.