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World Suicide Prevention Day: How the media can help prevent suicide

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September 10 is globally recognised as World Suicide Prevention Day. This day was introduced by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) alongside the World Health Organisation (WHO) to raise awareness and in so doing, support advocacy for suicide prevention. By dedicating an entire day to suicide prevention, the IASP and WHO aim to change the narrative around mental health, counter misconceptions and address poor understanding surrounding this highly stigmatised condition.

Mental health is a global issue of concern and constitutes a key public health challenge for most countries in the world. Statistics say that one in four people will develop a mental health condition in their lifetime. WHO statistics further reveal that each year, an estimated 800,000 people die around the world, due to suicide. To put this into perspective, one person dies from suicide every 40 seconds. Low and middle-income countries are said to have a higher rate of suicide with a significant 79 per cent of global suicides occurring in these countries.

Nigeria is a lower-middle-income country where cases of suicide are increasingly being reported in the media in the recent past. With an estimated population of 200 million people, leaving aside neonates and under-fives, approximately 45 million Nigerians can be said to be at risk of mental illness and hundreds of thousands at risk of suicide.

Increasing concern about the mental health of Nigerians and the role of the media in reporting recent cases of suicides constituted the impetus for pioneering an online conference organised by The World Health Organization Collaborating Centre of Excellence in Mental Health Neuroscience and Substance Use Disorders, University of Ibadan; the UCH/College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry; the Asido Foundation and Stablemums Foundation on September 8.

The director of the WHO Collaborating Centre of Excellence in Mental Health Neuroscience and Substance Use Disorders, Oye Gureje, who opened the training, noted that while there is a paucity of data on suicide rates in Nigeria, most recent data indicate an incidence of 17.3 suicides per 100,000 people. He went on to note that there seems to be an increase in reporting in the media on suicide. The question of whether increased reporting was a reflection of a rise in suicide rates or a rise in public interest was discussed and the implications of responsible reporting explored.

The media certainly has a crucial role to play in disseminating information with reference to health; particularly as this is known to improve health literacy. The online conference noted this is especially the case on the sensitive subject of suicide in Nigeria.

Adetoun Faloye, a psychiatrist, stated that the media has long had a significant role to play in reporting of health-related content and have the power to shape perceptions around mental health conditions as well as the portrayal of suicide. It was noted that in framing reports, the media have been known to use language which promotes stigma and shame, referring to people with mental health conditions as ‘mad’ or ‘psycho’. Mr Faloye urged the media to adopt the expression ‘death by suicide’ instead of ‘committed suicide’.

Journalists were advised to not sensationalise, glamourise and trivialise suicide as this could lead, to what the experts refer to as – suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is defined by direct or indirect exposure to detailed content on suicide which triggers suicidal behaviours in at-risk populations.

This tendency to inadvertently glamourise suicides in the Nigerian public is evidenced by the continuous reference in the media to details of how the suicide was achieved. For example, when photos appear in the press or on-line stories and the continuous mention of the use of a particular brand of poison ‘sniper’. As a result of media sensationalism, the brand is seen by most Nigerian to be synonymous with suicide whenever brought up. Further, there are what some might label unethical instances of suicide notes being read or published by the new media.

Another expert in the conference, Olayinka Egbokhare from the Department of Communications and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, stressed that media practitioners must then learn to “strike a balance” between being newsworthy reports and raising the issues of the need for suicide prevention. If suicide is covered carefully, and with a public duty to educate, the media can encourage vulnerable and at-risk individuals to seek out help rather than harping on the details of the act.

Responsible reporting

The media has a duty to frame mental illness as a societal issue and one of grave importance to the entire population in Nigeria. The media needs to frame mental illness in the same light as physical illnesses are framed, that is by presenting factual information including the cause, various presentations and treatment options.

According to Opeyemi Lawal, the Founder and CEO of StableMums Foundation, it is important and necessary for media practitioners to tread with caution when reporting on death by suicide. They should refrain from displaying graphic content; giving personal details about the individual or their family to avoid stigmatisation. The media should also refrain from providing details about the methods of suicide and location it took place. The use of sensitive language and emphasizing hope and recovery should be an overarching theme when reporting on suicides.

If news reports aim to raise awareness, Mr Lawal noted, then warning signs must be mentioned as well as information on available resources, support and treatment options for the people who have thought about suicide. Likewise, Jibril Abdulmalik, a psychiatrist and the Founder of Aisdo Foundation, underscored the importance of the media in amplifying the issue appropriately. The media can fill in the gaps in suicide prevention that relate to awareness, he noted. According to Mr Abdulmalik, “the media has a critical window of opportunity between when an individual considers suicide or suicide ideation to when the actual act takes place.”

Despite Nigeria’s inadequate and overburdened health infrastructure, it is imperative that media practitioners do their research and provide information on treatment centres and stories of hope when reporting on suicides.

The key message from this important online conference in honour of World Suicide Prevention Day is that it behoves the media not to exacerbate the problem and to support mental health professionals to be part of the solution when reporting on such a sensitive area of public health.

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