Does talking about suicide really help prevent suicide?
May 19, 2017 6:03 AM   Subscribe

With Chris Cornell's sad death have come familiar calls to "end the silence" around suicide and mental illness. Intuitively, this suggestion seems to make sense. But is there data to support the idea that an increase in public discussion of mental health and suicide reduces the suicide rate? I'm taking about statistics, clinical studies, etc.

(Before anyone mentions it, I deliberately used "data" as a singular noun.)
posted by Perodicticus potto to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot of evidence that media discussions of suicide can actually increase the incidence of people attempting and completing suicide. This can be minimized when media outlets follow recommendations for how to report on celebrity suicides.

Having said that, my understanding is that there's plenty of evidence that individuals can effectively intervene when people they know are showing warning signs for suicide, and educating the general public about warning signs and effective interventions, as well as decreasing stigma so people can respond effectively, can be helpful. So it may be that it's useful to end the silence around mental illness and suicide, but reporting on celebrity deaths is a particularly lousy way to do it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:13 AM on May 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

Agreed, responsible journalism and reporting on suicide is important according to the research. The Samaritans in the UK have their own media guidelines.
posted by Stark at 7:11 AM on May 19, 2017

Best answer: There are studies that show that talking to individual people who might be suicidal is an effective intervention. Many people, however, worry that if they ask their patient/child/friend/partner if they're considering suicide, they'll somehow plant the idea in the other person (which is generally found to be false). Ending the societal stigma around talking about suicide could be a way of helping individuals feel more comfortable in intervening with individuals in their own lives (with something like QPR).

ArbitraryAndCapricious is right that media depictions or explicit descriptions of suicide can trigger others (which has been a big debate around the Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" lately). That's a slightly different thing, but both pieces of that need to be considered. It's better if individuals are more comfortable talking to people in their lives about suicide, because intervening early creates better outcomes, and it's important that the media don't sensationalize or glamorize suicide in the process of encouraging people to get more informed about how to intervene and talk about it.
posted by lazuli at 7:13 AM on May 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I did the QPR training, and a lot of my takeaway from it was that we need to normalize suicidal ideation. It is normal to think about suicide during very stressful or difficult times in your life. Rather than treating thoughts of suicide as a big, scary secret, we need to acknowledge that most people feel that way at least once in their lives and give individuals and their support systems the tools they need to avoid acting on those thoughts or impulses. So it's very much about taking the stigma away from suicidal thoughts, but not in a way that glamorizes the actual act of suicide.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:54 AM on May 19, 2017 [25 favorites]

Best answer: is there data to support the idea that an increase in public discussion of mental health and suicide reduces the suicide rate?

Yes. From the 2014 New York Times article linked in the first comment:
People who kill themselves are already vulnerable, but publicity around another suicide appears to make a difference as they are considering their options. The evidence suggests that suicide “outbreaks” and “clusters” are real phenomena; one death can set off others. There’s a particularly strong effect from celebrity suicides....

Suicide prevention advocates have developed guidelines for news media coverage of suicide deaths. The idea is to avoid emphasizing or glamorizing suicide, or to make it seem like a simple or inevitable solution for people who are at risk. The guidelines have been shown to make a difference: A study in Vienna documented a significant drop in suicide risk when reporters began adhering to recommendations for coverage....

They also recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person. One example was the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who was beloved among young music fans, including in Seattle, where his career rose and where he was found dead. Local coverage of his suicide was closely tied to messages about treatment for mental health and suicide prevention, along with a very public discussion of the pain his death caused his family. Those factors may explain why his death bucked the pattern. In the months after Mr. Cobain’s death, calls to suicide prevention lines in the Seattle area surged and suicides actually went down.
posted by John Cohen at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

a caustic view of this, podcast style. a wandering convo between the hosts and an MD specialist.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2017

Best answer: As someone who struggles with suicidal ideation, this conversation always seem to be a lot of healthy people being afraid. I wish "talking about suicide! ending the silence!" didn't mean hand-wringing over one piece of media and/or celebrity that may or may not cause teens to get a suicide contagian, but rather allowing suicidal people to not have to consider their life-threatening illness a deep secret never to be spoken of because others find it upsetting*. I've spent a lot more energy protecting other people's feelings than ever speaking openly about suicide myself, so data point I guess?

*Unless they're telling a triumphant story of overcoming or working for an anti-suicide nonprofit. None of the "silence ending" seems to be FOR people like me, the people suffering the most, and especially not for teens, and I know I'm not alone in that feeling.
posted by colorblock sock at 2:54 PM on May 19, 2017 [17 favorites]

Agree with colorblock sock. I can't find it, but somewhere there's an interview with a young actor where she says, more or less:

"When I was 18 or so my mom took me aside and said, women in our family often have a brain chemistry imbalance that makes us depressed. So if you're feeling a certain way, it's pretty normal, your aunt and grandma have the same problem, and there's help for that. You can go to the doctor and get help."

That is the kind of message and talk that makes it easier to live with mental illness, and makes it easier to seek help.

When it comes to suicidal ideation, one of the few red-alert symptoms is hopelessness. That is the symptom that will lead a mental health professional to recommend hospitalization, because that's often the symptom that tips someone into making an actual suicide attempt instead of just thinking about it. So the idea that depression is not the end of the world and that it's a survivable problem, that's a message that will actually certainly prevent suicides.

It also helps the friends and family of people with depression. Friends and family will usually, uh, react really strongly when you talk about suicidal thoughts, and it's really distressing for them and really annoying for us, and it makes it a lot harder to talk about, and that makes it a lot harder to ask for help. Messaging that it's a normal and survivable problem helps everyone all round.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 6:53 PM on May 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Rainbo Vagrant, I think you're thinking of Kristen Bell. [YouTube video of Kristen Bell talking about anxiety and depression]
posted by Secret Sparrow at 6:15 AM on May 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

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