Awareness, respect and empathy needed to encourage responsible coverage of suicide news

Credit: Photo by Roger H. Goun

As the country continues its battle against COVID-19, the pandemic has taken a toll on Malaysians’ mental health. Amidst economic uncertainties and self-isolation from lockdowns, recent reports on the increasing numbers of suicide cases have become a cause for concern.

Between January and May this year, 468 suicide cases were reported to the police — averaging at three cases a day. This indicates a stark increase from previous years, with 631 total reported cases in 2020 and 609 in 2019.

Police statistics also show that women and young people appeared to be the most vulnerable groups. Of the 1,708 deaths by suicide from 2019 to May 2021, 1,427 cases involved women while 281 victims were men. Over half of these cases involved teenagers below the age of 18, with 872 deaths.

In light of this, the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (the Content Forum) strongly advocates for self-regulation among media professionals, content creators, and the general public when reporting or sharing news of suicides.

“Irresponsible reporting of suicides is recognized as a risk factor for triggering suicidal behavior especially when it involves sensationalism and explicit reporting of the methods adopted,” said the Content Forum Executive Director Mediha Mahmood. “While the Content Forum acknowledges the newsworthiness of these cases, media practitioners should also be sensitive as to how their reporting can exert considerable impact on the victims’ families as well as the community, especially those with a higher vulnerability to suicide.”

The World Health Organization’s 2017 media guidelines on suicide reporting indicates that media reports on suicide, particularly those which are sensationalist in nature and include excessive details on the nature and locations of suicide cases, can spark “copycat” suicides. Conversely, responsible and ethical reporting on suicides can encourage people to seek help for their mental health by disseminating help-seeking information and facilitating a respectful discussion of an otherwise stigmatized issue.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health’s own Guidelines on For Media Reporting on Suicide detail several key factors to consider when reporting suicide cases. These include avoiding details of the method of suicide, publishing photographs of the deceased, depicting suicide as a method of coping with personal problems, and it also includes resources for help within the report.

While social media has become the primary way for Malaysians to stay connected with each other during this pandemic, social media users should also consider the impact of the content they choose to share and whether or not they should even share it.

“In their eagerness to share news about suicide, some may forget that the news involves real people and real emotions. Exposure to suicide stories can be emotionally disturbing so we should always treat such issues with respect and empathy; avoid sharing sensational or judgmental content,” said Mediha.

Mediha added that many social media platforms have guidelines and resources for discussing suicide, and encouraged more content producers and consumers to make use of these when posting their content.

“Being entrusted with the responsibility of setting ethical content standards for the industry, the Content Forum continues to advocate responsible journalism and is keen in promoting better digital discourse around the issue of suicide,” she said. The guidelines for media reporting on suicide by the Disease Control Division Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH) can be found here