In My Opinion: Paul Holleran: Responsible reporting on mental health, mental illness and death by suicide

REPORTING a death by suicide is a tough gig for any journalist, but not as tough as it is for the bereaved family, and for the thousands of other bereaved families whose heartache is relived each time they read or hear of another death through suicide.

And not as tough as it is for someone, somewhere who might just decide to attempt to take their own life after reading or hearing that report.

That is why the National Union of Journalists has published its latest guidelines for journalists and all those working in the media on Responsible Reporting on Mental Health, Mental Illness & Death by Suicide.

The media has come a long way since the first guidelines were produced, around 20 years ago.

Overall, reporting of mental health issues and death by suicide is much more responsible, with a few exceptions. Members of the public are very quick to react if the Press has gone too far and the media in turn tend to respond with donations to mental health charities.

The usual ‘rules’ about responsible reporting appear to be ignored when it involves a celebrity or someone in the public eye.

The recent sad death of actor Robin Williams illustrates the often difficult balancing act journalists strive to achieve, reporting the news and meeting the public’s often insatiable thirst for more information, more details, more reactions, combined with the need to adhere to professional guidelines, ethical standards and plain and simple good taste.

This comes on top of everyday pressure of the modern day newsroom where journalists are working to deadlines under increasing workloads with declining workforces.

It is therefore no surprise that stress, anxiety and other mental health issues are no strangers to the media industry.

But rather than becoming involved in a ‘name, shame and blame game’, the NUJ, the media in Scotland, the Scottish Government, academics, mental health specialists and charities and support groups for people affected by mental illness and death by suicide are keen to build upon the vast improvements that have been made over the years and to continue to work together to improve how the media reports on such matters and to improve public awareness.

The publication of these guidelines is by no means an attempt to keep such issues out of the Press. But we do want an end to sensational front page headlines with explicit details of how someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister or husband/ wife died by suicide.

We want an end to the endless speculation and conjecture as to the possible reasons for suicide. We want journalists to be aware that the amount of detail included in a news headline or report or inappropriate images could lead to a copycat incident. And we want the media to realise there is no need to republish details and pictures of previous incidents. It merely adds to the distress already suffered.

In my role, I speak to more and more journalists affected by mental illness and I have been involved in cases of suicide. Journalists are under ever-increasing pressure both from within their organisation and from external pressures.

Relentless personal attacks through social media on journalists simply for doing their job are bound to affect an individual’s mental wellbeing. Journalists have to deal with a wide range of stories, many of them traumatic. Their employers should have steps in place to offer support when it is needed.

The NUJ is grateful for the support received towards publishing these guidelines from the Scottish Government, see me, Samaritans, Dr Sallyanne Duncan of the University of Strathclyde and the numerous other individuals and organisations who provided assistance.

An event to launch publication of Responsible Reporting on Mental Health, Mental Illness & Death by Suicide takes place at the University of Strathclyde – tomorrow, Friday November 7. For more details, contact Fiona Davidson, or 0141 248 6648.

The guidelines can be viewed, here.

Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser, National Union of Journalists