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Friday, 7 December 2012

Suicide and the media - is there a copycat effect? Do the reporting guidelines save lives?

There was an interesting Twitter debate this week between Andre Picard and Nova Scotia’s provincial health officer.  At issue is whether media reporting of suicide is associated with copycat activity that leads to further suicides.  The conversation was led by an article in the Vancouver Sun talking about suicide .  Mr. Picard’s position being clearly that  “Not potential. Not speculation. Evidence. My position is there is none.Twitter feed December 5, search on @RobertStrang   

Then, in a twisted ironic tragic event, the frenzy surrounding the media prank pulled on the Duchess of Cambridge which duped a nurse into sharing confidential information, appears to have contributed to the nurse’s  decision to complete suicide. Telegraph report.

As with many interventions in public health, we often forget why we do things.  The debate having resurfaced is probably reflective that there is a journalism ethic and sometimes formally written rules in limiting reporting on suicide. 

Turn back the clock, and somewhere around 3% of suicides were considered as part of clusters or associated with copycat activity.  The more explicit the information shared on the suicide, the higher the number of copycat based activity.  

The suicide literature is replete with case studies looking at clusters, time series evidence that media policy change on reporting resulted in a drop in copycat activity. 

A fairly comprehensive literature review is accessible at J Epi and Comm Health  which is a cornerstone peer reviewed publication for public health professionals.   Of course, that was nearly a decade ago, and many countries and media have implemented suicide reporting guidelines so that the issue today is likely so dilute as to be barely measureable and unlikely to approach the 3% level.

Measuring a 3% expected difference in suicides, with an expected rate of 15 per 100,000 population – would actually be statistically challenging.   So while Mr. Picard’s assertions may have some basis, over the years many lives have been saved by following suicide reporting guidelines. Let us not be foolish enough to go backwards and have to relearn the lessons again.

Dec 10 - the debate rages on, the Globe and Mail editorial piece (no doubt with M. Picard's influence - unbalanced commentary) http://m.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/editorials/teen-suicide-contagion-and-the-news-media/article6116592/?service=mobile   

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