Outreach efforts following high profile suicides can save lives
A version of this commentary appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Waterloo Region Record and the Huffington Post
In the last few years, two high profile youth suicides in the Ottawa region garnered tremendous media attention and, as a new study suggests, resulted in increased emergency room visits by youth for mental health distress.
First was the suicide of Daron Richardson in 2010, the daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach and NHL player, Luke Richardson. Many friends, her own hockey teammates and family members were interviewed by the media and her memorial received extensive media coverage. School friends launched the Do It for Daron challenge, which became the well-known DIFD Foundation — a youth-driven initiative focused on raising awareness about youth mental health.
The community was then hit with another tragedy: Jamie Hubley, son of Ottawa city councilor Allan Hubley, died by suicide in 2011. His death also received extensive media coverage and his parents openly discussed his suicide with the media.
What was the impact of such pronounced media attention?
Our recent study published in Healthcare Policy looked at the number of youths visiting the emergency room 14, 28 and 90 days following these two highly publicized suicides. The study was completed at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Research Institute in Ottawa, and investigated 6,700 youth visits to the emergency room between 2007 and 2012. We found that there was a significant increase in the number of mental health visits to the local pediatric emergency department (CHEO) 28 and 90 days after Daron and Jamie’s suicides compared to the same time in previous years.
But what at first sounds like an alarming link may serve as an important positive lesson.
While our study found that there was a significant increase in the number mental health visits to the local pediatric emergency department following these two publicized suicides, we found no differences in terms of the severity of mental health symptoms or suicidal status of the visits. This suggests that the media attention may have created a higher awareness of mental health issues in the community but not more suicidal thoughts.
In other words, the right kind of media attention may actually play a positive role in increasing mental health awareness and help-seeking behaviour.
Two phenomena are frequently used to describe the association between suicidal behaviour and media exposure: the Werther effect and the Papageno effect. The Werther effect has been well established by research and describes the increase of suicides following media attention of a suicide. Suicide clusters are more frequent in teens and young adults and suicide risk increases with the number of shared characteristics with the victim, as well as the popularity of the suicide victim.
For this reason, numerous countries have voluntary reporting guidelines to decrease the potentially negative effect of media attention surrounding suicides. In Canada, the guidelines urge the media to avoid perpetuating the myth that suicide is unexplainable, identification with the victim through the use of pictures, descriptions of method and location, front page coverage and sensational headlines.
Conversely, the Papageno effect occurs when the media has a suicide-preventing influence. For example, one study determined that the suicide of Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana, did not yield the expected Werther effect. On the contrary, the number of suicides one-week following Cobain’s death decreased compared to the same week in the year prior and the year following. Some have hypothesized this was because crisis community outreach interventions were put in place immediately, and the media coverage focused on providing contact details for crisis centres.
Other studies have shown that news blackouts, reductions in the quantity of reporting on suicide and improvements in the quality of media coverage are successful in preventing spikes in suicides.
So what can we learn from these important examples?
Media reporting of suicide does not necessarily have negative consequences — it all depends on the quality of the coverage. Media reports of Richardson and Hubley’s suicides were, on the whole, careful, thoughtful and accompanied by a list of resources where youth in distress could get help. The parents were involved and supportive and those interviewed provided important suicide prevention information to families and educators — what signs to look for, where to go and what to do, and how to get help.
It may also be important for communities to put in place immediate outreach interventions for mental health crisis support following news coverage of youth suicides. Simply talking about suicide does not cause suicide — but accessing timely mental health supports and resources can be life-saving.
Stephanie L. Leon is a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Ottawa and completing her doctoral thesis at the CHEO’s Research Institute. Dr. Mario Cappelli is the Director of Psychiatric and Mental Health Research at CHEO, Chair of the Research Action Committee of the Ottawa Community Suicide Prevention Network and a Clinical and Adjunct Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa. They are both advisors to EvidenceNetwork.ca.