What content is unsafe?
The Framework’s Safety recommendations for public messaging are based on research showing that certain types of media reports about suicide deaths may spur imitation of suicidal behavior among vulnerable individuals (people in despair or already thinking about suicide). Increased risk is associated with:
- Repeated, prominent, or sensational coverage
- Details about suicide method or location
- Portraying suicide as a common or acceptable response to adversity
- Glamorizing or romanticizing suicide
- Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide
- Including personal details that encourage identification with the person who died
These findings led to the development of media recommendations to help journalists safely report on suicide.
The risk of unsafe messaging extends beyond media coverage to all public messaging.
Given the potential for harm, experts recommend avoiding the content outlined above in public messaging as well as in the media. The Framework’s Safety recommendations are similar to the media recommendations, but are adapted for suicide prevention messengers rather than journalists.
Safety concerns don’t mean we should avoid messaging. Communicating to the public about suicide is critical; what’s important is how we message about it.
Messages can also cause harm by undermining prevention
In addition to the potential for imitation, messages may be problematic because they’re counterproductive to prevention goals. For example, there’s a large literature documenting the power of “social norms”—what we perceive is “normal”—on behavior, which suggests the potential harm of portraying suicidal behavior as common or acceptable. Likewise, communications may unintentionally convey negative stereotypes about people with mental illnesses or reinforce stigma rather than countering it. Avoiding messages that interfere with prevention goals is also part of messaging safely.
Safe messaging is for everyone, and for all types of communications
While discussions of safe messaging often focus on media coverage, everyone who is communicating to the public should be mindful of safety—especially those of us working in the suicide prevention and mental health promotion fields. Government officials, prevention practitioners, people with lived experience, community leaders, and others can all help to ensure that messages are safe and helpful.
In addition, all communications to the public should be viewed through a “safety lens” prior to release and revised if necessary to make sure they avoid problematic content. Safety guidelines apply to websites, fundraising appeals, event publicity, brochures, and social media posts as well as posters and other educational materials. Make sure to consider safety both when creating your own communications and when disseminating others’ messages (e.g., using others’ educational materials, reposting social media, forwarding articles, etc.)