PAW has reported the tragic death by suicide of a Princeton undergraduate. A major public health problem in the U.S., suicide is the 12th leading cause of death at all ages, and the second leading cause of death among the college-age population. Suicide is rare on university campuses but has pronounced adverse impacts not only for the person affected but for their family and friends and for the community as a whole. It is a newsworthy event.
Reporting of suicide, however, poses special challenges. Over 100 peer-reviewed studies published worldwide have shown that suicide can be “contagious,” increasing the risk of subsequent suicides among other vulnerable individuals. At the same time, responsible reporting may reduce that risk by changing perceptions, dispelling myths, and informing the public on the complexities of the issue and resources to address it.
Best practices and recommendations for reporting of suicides have been developed to guide the press in addressing this difficult topic most responsibly and effectively. (See, for example, www.ReportingonSuicide.org/Recommendations.) Among them are the need to avoid sensationalizing the event, describing the method and location of the death, including personal details or photographs of the person who died, or using terms that have may seem pejorative such a “commit suicide” with its connotation of a crime. More constructively, the report should keep details general, always include the best available data about suicide and its complex, multi-determined nature, and promote the message, with direction to mental health resources, that support and effective treatments are available for people who are having thoughts of suicide.
The PAW article succeeded in some ways in meeting these best practices, for example, by recommending that those experiencing suicidal thoughts call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chatline at www.988lineline.org. In other ways, however, it fell terribly short. Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility, and if tragically there is another instance in which responsible reporting of a suicide in the Princeton University community is needed, PAW must do better.