Safety

Tips for Messaging Safely

Screen content before sharing it

Review the content of emails, social media posts, event announcements, news articles, and other messages and materials before forwarding, reposting, or sharing them with the public. (You may still choose to share content privately with selected colleagues or friends, but be mindful that some language, stories, or images may be upsetting or trigger a painful psychological response.)

Spread the word about safety

Gently educate colleagues who forward problematic content about the importance of safety in public communications about suicide. If there is disagreement about whether or not that particular content is unsafe, use the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about what kinds of messaging, generally speaking, will be most helpful in advancing prevention goals (i.e., content that is Strategic, conveys a Positive Narrative, and follows applicable Guidelines.)

Be consistent

Think about safety when creating websites, newsletters, fundraising appeals, event publicity, press releases, and public talks, as well as posters and other educational materials. All of the messages we release into the public domain contribute to the public’s perceptions about suicide. In addition, the messages we convey may be amplified by journalists, community members, educators, and others who use our messages and materials to shape their own communications.

Increase safety by conveying a Positive Narrative

One way to avoid many of the safety pitfalls is to focus on conveying a Positive Narrative about suicide that fits your strategy and audience. Many safety issues occur when messages focus on the problem of suicide, rather than on what can be done about it. By including at least one of the many ways to be positive, messages can encourage action and help the public understand what prevention looks like in action. Also see tips for conveying a Positive Narrative.

Be mindful of safety when sharing stories about individual suicide attempts or deaths with the public

While stories about people who have attempted or died by suicide can help to put a human face on the problem, avoid sharing unsafe details about the means, location, or other personal details that can encourage imitation. Instead, use the personal story as a way to introduce prevention messages, for example, to discuss pathways to coping and recovery, available resources, practical actions the audience can take, or other content that contributes to a Positive Narrative about suicide prevention.

For more information, see the Guideline Special Considerations for Telling Your Own Story: Best Practices for Presentations by Suicide Loss and Suicide Attempt Survivors and other resources listed in the Guidelines categories Telling Your Own Story and Telling Others’ Stories.

Make sure data — if used — are strategic, safe, and prevention-focused

Don’t assume all messages should include statistics. Part of developing your message Strategy is determining what content is most likely to lead to the intended action, given limited time and space to get your message across. Often, statistics aren’t the best information to help your audience to take action. While data such as “we lose one life to suicide every 14 minutes in the U.S.” or “suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults” may seem attention-grabbing, they’re not right for every message. Data about the problem may be helpful to include in some contexts, for example, in advocacy materials. However, these types of statistics actually may be counterproductive with other audiences and goals, for example, messages aimed at teaching parents to recognize warning signs and encouraging them to call the Lifeline. Why? Such statistics might discourage action by portraying suicide as overwhelming and unsolvable. They also take up valuable messaging ‘space’ that could instead provide the concrete guidance and resources parents need to be able to act.

In addition, repeated use of extensive statistics about suicide across many public messages can undermine prevention goals by making suicide seem more common than it is (“normalizing” it) and weakening the idea that prevention is possible (i.e. perpetuate a negative narrative about suicide). Make sure to use descriptive, non-sensational words such as “higher rates” or “rates rose” rather than terms like “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.” Ensure that your messages emphasize solutions and action appropriate to the message rather than simply reiterating the problem (see Tips for Conveying a Positive Narrative). In general, use data like salt: only when needed, and almost always in small amounts.

Convey the complex causality of suicide

When appropriate to the message, convey that suicide results from a combination of factors rather than a single triggering event. If relevant to the message, discuss the risk factors that can predispose a person to suicide and describe protective factors that can help buffer that risk. For many audiences and goals, it may be more useful to focus on educating about the immediate warning signs of suicide and describing how to respond to these signs as opposed to the underlying risk and protective factors.

 

Highlight solutions to stigma, rather than the problem of stigma

  • ​Avoid messages that reinforce stigma. Instead, focus on messages that highlight recovery, lower barriers to assistance, or enable positive contact with people who have experienced mental health problems or suicidality. For example, you might share real stories of people who have found treatments or other supports that help them cope with suicidal thinking or other symptoms, convey information that counters beliefs or addresses practical challenges that impede help-seeking by your audience, or describe how family, friends, co-workers and others can support people affected by mental illnesses or suicidality.
  • The term “stigma” describes a broad array of attitudes and behaviors. Use audience research and engagement to clarify exactly how stigma-related issues affect their behavior and create messages that reflect this understanding. For example, to reduce workplace discrimination against people with mental illnesses, audience research with employers would reveal which specific beliefs and attitudes were contributing to their discriminatory behavior. Likewise, engaging with people who are experiencing mental health symptoms might reveal that societal stigma has discouraged them from pursing potentially helpful services in order to avoid being labeled with a stigmatized diagnosis (an aspect of stigma known as “label avoidance.”) In this case, further consultation with the audience could help to identify the support options they would find acceptable and how best to describe those options. For instance, they may prefer the use of everyday language rather than clinical terminology to describe their experiences

Use non-stigmatizing language

Use terms like “died by suicide,” “completed suicide,” “killed him/herself” and “attempted suicide,” instead of “successful suicide,” “unsuccessful suicide,” “failed attempt,” or “committed suicide.”