Freelance Journalist

October 10, 2022 (Updated )

World Mental Health Day, World Suicide Prevention Day, Mental Health Awareness Week… Throughout the year there are many opportunities prompting us to stop and take stock of our reporting on mental health. The reality though, is that we need to be prepared to report ethically every single day.

While you may have been lucky enough in your writing career to not have been assigned a suicide story, it’s vitally important that we are prepared to deal with this sensitive subject, no matter how uncommon it is in our day-to-day reporting.

According to the World Health Organization, there are almost 800,000 deaths by suicide every year globally— this equates to about one person every 40 seconds.

Outside of health-related diseases, suicide is the leading cause of death in the UK — and research published in the British Medical Journal found a link between coverage of celebrity suicides with increases in suicide within the general population. It’s vital that journalists understand and recognise the best ethical practices for reporting suicide responsibly.

Researchers found a link between reporting and real-world actions.

Many Journalists Don’t Adhere To Guidelines

Despite an abundance of national and international guidelines from professional bodies including the National Union of Journalists, Samaritans, World Health Organisation and Mindframe, current journalistic practice often falls short when it comes to reporting on suicide.

Startling research by journalism academics Ann Luce and Sallyanne Duncan, reveals that many journalists don’t adhere to the guidelines or even know they exist.

An analysis of 159 news stories published by UK national and regional publications, found that 55 percent of suicide stories were sensationalised, 25 percent provided implicit detail about the method, 23 percent provided a roadmap on how to kill yourself, and 60 percent did not contain any helpline information.

Journo Resources
“Journalists don’t intend to hurt people. The problem is they don’t adhere to the guidelines because they work to deadlines. Some of them don’t know these guidelines exist, or they forget.”
Ann Luce, journalism academic

“There is no reflective thinking of the harm that it can cause, particularly to relatives,” says Luce. The former local newspaper reporter was speaking from extremely personal experience, having lost her partner to suicide when she was a reporter, and then witnessing her own paper covering the story.

“When I saw the coverage in my own paper, written by my colleagues, I was devastated. It was a factual story but was so insensitive.”

Responsible media reporting should be about preventing harm to family and friends, but also about the prevention of suicide, says Luce. This is why reporting the location of a suicide is particularly problematic, because the site may then get a reputation for being a place to go and take your own life. Yet, Luce and Duncan’s research found 22 percent of news stories have indeed mentioned the location of death.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Ann Luce (L) and Sallyanne Duncan (R) created a new toolkit.

Realising that adherence to suicide reporting guidance was uneven, the pair developed the Responsible Suicide Reporting (RSR) toolkit to equip journalists with practical advice. This model draws on all available global guidelines and collates comprehensive information and examples all in one place. The toolkit has since been incorporated by media regulators IPSO and IMPRESS.

“Journalists don’t intend to hurt people. The problem is they don’t adhere to the guidelines because they work to deadlines. Some of them don’t know these guidelines exist, or they forget,” explains Luce.

She has also reflected on her own work as a journalist and gone back to look over her own stories with a critical eye. “I was horrified. I was not following the guidelines — it was just another story on the crime beat for me,” she admits.

From her work in journalism training at Bournemouth University, Luce realised there was also an education gap to fill. “Reporting on suicide for a journalist can be quite a rare event, so it doesn’t hit the top of the list in training and education,” she says.

Start By Defining The Narrative

The RSR model sets out three steps for journalists to follow, in order to have a greater understanding of the impact of their suicide story and how they should report sensitively.

By pulling together a combined framework from multiple media guidelines, the pair hope to make it easier for journalists under pressure to take considered choices.

Journo Resources

Firstly, the journalist should decide what type of narrative this piece fits into — the pair have identified five types of stories that could touch on suicide, ranging from a news event that has just happened to a family launching a campaign in someone’s memory.

Each of these narratives will require a different type of approach and have a different level of engagement with family and friends. Having this narrative in mind from the start can help you shape a more responsible narrative for your story.

Asking these questions can also make you consider if it should be covered in the first place. “The majority of stories come from inquests, but just because you are legally able to cover something it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the most ethical thing to do,” explains Luce.

event driven, post judicial, tribute-driven, anniversary , action as memorial

For junior journalists, who might not always feel comfortable pushing back to more senior members of staff, having guidelines like the RSR model to point to can be helpful — as can having the discussion earlier on in the reporting process.

Ethical Use Of Language & Statistics

Once you’ve understood the framework of your piece, it’s vital to take care of the language and statistics you use within it. Across all major suicide media guidelines, there’s advice to avoid sensationalisation, glorification, stigmatisation, and gratuitous reporting.

For example, headlines should not include quotes such as “heaven has a new angel”, and people should not be stigmatised as being the “victim” of bullying. Similarly, phrases such as the suicide being “successful” or “unsuccessful” should also be avoided, because they can evoke a sense of triumph or failure.

This is also the reason why journalists should never suggest someone died instantly, or that their death was quick, painless, or a solution to their problems.

Mentioning the method of suicide can also end up glorifying the act, and should therefore be avoided, and journalists should steer clear of speculation of “triggers” or linking multiple cases together.

In general, the use of language is vital in safeguarding and against stigma, and every word in a suicide story needs to be scrutinised.

The very phrase “commit suicide” is common, but problematic, because this refers to the historical context of suicide being classed as a criminal act. “Every time you use the word ‘commit’, you are reinforcing stigma,” explains Luce. “Died by suicide” or “killed him/herself” are better alternatives that can be used instead.

Journo Resources
"It’s important to include information at the end of the article on how people can get support. Be specific. if you are writing about eating disorders, it’s ideal to include information on and contact details for BEAT.”
Yvette Caster

Social media posts from the deceased should also not be included in any news reporting, because, again, this can glamourise or glorify their act of suicide. While it may be common newsroom practice to use photos or videos from websites and social media to add contextual flavour to reporting, in the case of a suicide story, explicit permission should be obtained from family members to avoid causing further distress.

When handling statistics surrounding suicide, it is important not to inflate or conflate the figures. Dramatising or sensationalising suicide is unhelpful and unethical, and it is the journalist’s job to make sure any statistics they present are accurate, clear, and from reputable sources.

And, finally, always remember to signpost people to help and support. In a previous interview with Journo Resources, Yvette Caster, the co-host of’s Mentally Yours Podcast will read out the number for the Samaritans at the end of every episode.

“It’s important to include information at the end of the article on how people can get support,” she explains. “Be specific. if you are writing about eating disorders, it’s ideal to include information on and contact details for BEAT.”

Reflecting On Your Work Before Publication

Finally, the RSR Toolkit asks journalists to reflect on their work before publication. They have put together six key questions to check that harm has been minimised, and appropriate care has been taken over the tone, language, and story placement.

1. minimise - have i minimised harm to those affected by the suicide? 2. avoid. have I told the truth yet avoided explicit details of method and location 3. care - have i taken care in producing the story including in tone and language 4. responsibly - have i used social media responsibly 5. avoid - have i avoided stereotypes harmful content and stigmatising stories 6. support - have i provided support via helplines

Luce explains: “If you answer no to any questions in stage three, you have to go back and look at the story again because it has broken the guidelines. If you have answered yes to all, then the story can run.”

The RSR also has thorough advice on how to handle death knocks responsibly, as well as the use of statistics and multimedia content.

When interviewing family and friends, journalists should primarily remember that the person will be grieving and is at an increased risk of self-harm and suicide themselves. “Whether somebody is famous or not, you have a duty of care to think about whether a person is healthy enough to be interviewed by the media,” stresses Yvette.

Care For Both Readers & Journalists

As well as signposting readers to support available, it’s also important that reporters look after themselves — both before, during, and after covering a suicide story. Practical steps can include talking to your editor before a death knock, and talking to someone you trust if you feel distressed whilst covering a story.

Journo Resources
"My first story back in [the] newsroom after my partner died was a suicide, as they thought I would be able to sympathise."
Ann Luce

Luce recalled her own experience with suicide reporting, highlighting how there is some way to go for the industry to understand the negative impact on mental health such assignments can have.

“Journalists on the frontline can be traumatised and that gets forgotten. My first story back in [the] newsroom after my partner died was a suicide, as they thought I would be able to sympathise. We are not looking after journalists doing suicide stories,” she declares.

The protection of journalists themselves is also part of responsible reporting, and the RSR has guidance on how to support people who may be traumatised from covering suicide stories. The key to handling suicide reporting and to protecting your own mental health is to give yourself enough time and breathing space to ensure you have acted responsibly.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this story, you can reach help from a number of places. The Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123 and you can also contact them through their website. You can see a list of other organisations here. You can also find more information on suicide reporting, self-care when covering suicide stories, and advice for bloggers
Lily Canter
Lily Canter

Lily Canter is a freelance journalist specialising in running and fitness. She has bylines in Runner’s World, Fit+Well, Trail Running, T3, TechRadar, LiveScience, Tom’s Guide, The Guardian, The Telegraph and the South China Morning Post.

They are also a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and the founder of Freelancing For Journalists.