Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A More Balanced Approach to the Reporting of Suicide in the Media

If you live in Massachusetts, particularly eastern Mass., you've probably been watching TV, listening to the radio or reading the same news stories I have about the "alleged Craigslist killer", Phillip Markoff, ending his life by suicide.

I'd like to extend my condolences to the families and friends of Julissa Brisman, Megan MicAllister and Phillip Markoff. They have suffered terrible losses and are experiencing a kind of pain that most of us will never know. Some of their friends and family will be at a loss as to how to support them during this time. I'd like to offer some suggestions:
  • Keep in contact through regular phone calls, visits or emails
  • Give emotional support through listening and talking (mostly listening)
  • Offer to give practical support, such as helping to do the shopping, cook dinner, carpool, etc.
  • Just be around

I've given a lot of thought to the reporting of this suicide because there's been reporting of every detail of the actual act including photographs leaked to the media of the crime scene. It's very troubling to view, listen to and read since I know there are people, including young people, who may be contemplating suicide who are also seeing and hearing the same information. The constant repetition of this story for days without additional helpful information for those viewers, readers and listeners who may be contemplating suicide is a disservice to them and their families and friends. The helpful information that should also be reported in stories involving suicide should include: the facts of suicide; the warning signs of suicide; where someone who is contemplating suicide can call to find help; and what resources there are in the community for the family and friends who are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to suicide.

For instance in Massachusetts:
  • There is a Statewide Emergency Services Program for psychiatric emergencies. The Statewide toll free phone number is 1-877-382-1609 and you enter your zip code to get the phone number for the local provider that serves your area.
  • There is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 that will connect you with the crisis center nearest you (
  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( and The Samaritans of Boston ( have support groups services and a survivor to survivor network for families and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide.

I came across this website on mental health reporting in the media and it has a very helpful tip sheet on reporting on suicide.

Tips for Reporting on Suicide

Copycat/ Suicide Contagion is real. Research shows that the incidence of suicide increases following news coverage of suicide. The following guidelines are suggested to minimize copycat attempts:

  • Refrain from using photographs of grieving relatives and friends when a suicide has occurred. Photographs might encourage someone contemplating suicide to act as a way to get attention or get back at someone, creating a dangerous copycat effect. Youth are especially vulnerable to these effects.
  • Do not report the method or place of suicide in detail. Exposure to suicide methods, including photographs, can encourage imitation among vulnerable individuals.
  • Do not portray suicide as a heroic or romantic result of a single event or cause. This obscures the long and painful process that results in completing suicide. Over 90 percent of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death.
  • Always include information about crisis intervention services in the area and a referral phone number.
  • Do not use suicide in headlines, even when they take place in public. This unnecessarily dramatizes the event and shifts the focus from the tragic loss of life. There are exceptions, as in the term “suicide bomber” when reporting on terrorist activities.

Facts About Mental Illness and Suicide

The great majority of people who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide. However, of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder.

People who die by suicide are frequently experiencing undiagnosed, undertreated, or untreated depression.

Worldwide, suicide is among the three leading causes of death among people aged 15 to 44.

  • An estimated 2-15 % of persons who have been diagnosed with major depression die by suicide. Suicide risk is highest in depressed individuals who feel hopeless about the future, those who have just been discharged from the hospital, those who have a family history of suicide and those who have made a suicide attempt in the past.
  • An estimated 3-20% of persons who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder die by suicide. Hopelessness, recent hospital discharge, family history, and prior suicide attempts all raise the risk of suicide in these individuals.
  • An estimated 6-15% of persons diagnosed with schizophrenia die by suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of premature death in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between 75 and 95% of these individuals are male.
  • Also at high risk are individuals who suffer from depression at the same time as another mental illness. Specifically, the presence of substance abuse, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder put those with depression at greater risk for suicide.
  • People with personality disorders are approximately three times as likely to die by suicide than those without. Between 25 and 50% of these individuals also have a substance abuse disorder or major depressive disorder.

To Find out the Warning Signs of Suicide Check Out these Links:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (

You can check out these links for a sampling of the coverage and background in the case.

CraigslistKiller Phillip Markoff - articles and videos (Fox 25 News Boston)

DA To Investigate Markoff Suicide In 'Craigslist' Case (WCVB TV Channel 5

Sheriff defends jail after Markoff suicide (

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