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Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4352 (Published 12 November 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4352

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Rapid Response:

Re: Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic

Dear Editor

The authors raise an important point about the role of the media in preventing suicide (1). We would like to add that academics themselves need to contribute to responsible reporting through carefully described research findings, including in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. This responsibility also extends to science communicators (e.g., academic/university media communication and public relations personnel). Especially in the era of pre-prints when articles are published in open access platforms ahead of careful scientific assessment via peer-review, the onus for facilitating responsible reporting falls more substantially on the author(s).

There is a large body of research literature documenting the potentially harmful effect of news reporting of suicide deaths on population suicide rates (2). Concerning aspects of reporting include description of suicide methods, sensational headlines, and excessive reporting - these can lead to suicidal behaviour among vulnerable people. Furthermore, associating the negative effects of the pandemic with suicidal behaviour, unless done exceedingly carefully, carries substantial risk of normalising it as a way of coping at a time of crisis, which could inadvertently lead to more suicide deaths.

Accordingly, media guidelines for the reporting of suicide exist (3), with specific guidance available for reporting during the pandemic (4, 5). These guidelines typically target journalists and media professionals, but suicide researchers and prevention experts also play an important role in making reporting safer. Titles and abstracts of research articles, as well as science communication efforts (e.g., press releases), often provide the basis for news reporting on research and it is essential that these texts are consistent with media recommendations. Unfortunately, we have seen several sensational headlines and news reports arising from academic articles and wanted to raise the potential impact this may have on suicide risk more widely. At this challenging time, it is vitally important that the research community does not contribute to increasing the risk of suicide in vulnerable populations. We recommend that authors, peer-reviewers, university press offices and journal editors consider the following points when publishing information about suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath:

1) Remove references to methods of suicide from article titles (where possible) and avoid detailed description of methods (e.g., how a ligature was attached) in all science communication efforts.

2) Descriptions of a novel method of suicide can contribute to spreading that method and should (where possible) be avoided. Where this is not possible, avoid referencing methods in the title and any detailed description of the exact method in the main text.

3) Avoid simplistic explanations of suicide, for example single ‘triggers’ or causes of suicide (in this case COVID-19 and its associated public health measures). Suicide is extremely complex, and it is rarely the case that a single event or factor leads someone to take their own life. We recommend that a statement about the complexity prefaces any speculation.

4) Avoid sensational language, such as “surge”, “spike”, “crisis”, “tsunami” and “epidemic” when describing the potential impact of the pandemic – these terms have been used out of context, generating sensational news headlines. As reported by Prof John and colleagues, there is currently no strong evidence of increases in suicide deaths during the first few months of the pandemic.

5) Special care should be taken when describing suicidal behaviour in young people, as this group is particularly susceptible to suicide contagion (6) .

These recommendations are certainly not intended to limit discourse about suicide or to restrict findings from suicide research. It is, however, essential that researchers, prevention, and communication experts work together on safe and accurate translation of suicide research findings into media reporting that minimises risks to vulnerable individuals.

For comprehensive guidance on reporting of suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic please refer to The International Association for Suicide Prevention guidance (5) (https://www.iasp.info/pdf/2020_Briefing_Statement_Reporting_on_Suicide_D...).

Written on behalf of the International COVID-19 suicide prevention research collaboration (ICSPRC) (https://www.iasp.info/covid-19/international-research-collaboration/)

1. John A, Pirkis J, Gunnell D, Appleby L, Morrissey J. Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic. BMJ. 2020;371:m4352.
2. Niederkrotenthaler T, Braun M, Pirkis J, Till B, Stack S, Sinyor M, et al. Association between suicide reporting in the media and suicide: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2020;368:m575.
3. World Health Organization. Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals2017 20/01/2021. Available from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/resource_booklet_20....
4. Hawton K, Marzano L, Fraser L, Hawley M, Harris-Skillman E, Lainez YX. Reporting on suicidal behaviour and COVID-19 - need for caution. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2021;8(1):15-7.
5. Reidenberg D, Niederkrotenthaler T. Reporting on suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic2020 20/01/2021. Available from: https://www.iasp.info/pdf/2020_Briefing_Statement_Reporting_on_Suicide_D....
6. Hawton K, Hill NTM, Gould M, John A, Lascelles K, Robinson J. Clustering of suicides in children and adolescents. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2020;4(1):58-67.

Competing interests: No competing interests

25 January 2021
Dr Duleeka Knipe
Vice Chancellors EBI Research Fellow
Prof Keith Hawton (University of Oxford); Dr Mark Sinyor (University of Toronto); Dr Thomas Niederkrotenthaler (Medical University of Vienna); ICSPRC
University of Bristol
Population Health Sciences, Bristol, UK