How to Talk About Suicide on Social Media
Social media has tremendous reach and influence. When people post on social media about suicide, that influence can be helpful or hurtful. Conversations about suicide on social media can promote misperceptions and stigma and potentially influence others to attempt suicide.
While several organizations have developed guidance for reporting in the media on the issue,1 there is little, if any, guidance for social media. But now, a group of psychiatrists has developed guidelines on this important subject. Below are the most important takeaways for anyone using social media who is addressing suicide.
“Social media is far and away how most people get news and that includes conversations about suicide. Whether from news organizations or influencers, or even the healthcare community, there’s a lot of potential for improvement. And, psychiatrists should be leading the conversation,” said Jessi Gold, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.
What to Avoid
Some words in social media posts can have unintended consequences. For example, using the terms successful or unsuccessful in reference to a suicide positions it as a desirable outcome. Referencing a person having committed suicide connects to the idea of a crime or a sin. Experts suggest instead using the phrase died by suicide.
Images that depict the place or method can make it seem more real and may lead vulnerable individuals to have thoughts of suicide. Be mindful in reposting a news article, that you might inadvertently be posting images as well. Avoid stating it happened because of a single cause or event because the circumstances around suicide are complex and always involve multiple causes. Contributing factors may include mental illness, physical illness, relationship loss, financial difficulties, peer influences, or other stressful events.
What you can do: sharing useful information
According to the psychiatrists: “The answer is not to stop talking about suicide since matters of critical public health concern warrant public education and destigmatization—especially as stigma related to mental illness is directly associated with less active help seeking. Instead, we must talk about suicide safely and effectively. Rather than elevating contagion risk, conversations may deepen mental health literacy, increase help seeking behaviors, and instill hope.”
Among the recommendations is the use of a content notice, also called a trigger warning. A content notice is a statement at the beginning of a post alerting users to potentially distressing content. These warnings allow the viewer to avoid the content of the post.
When posting on social media about suicide, the psychiatrists also recommend that users:
- Consider quoting, retweeting, or linking to suicide prevention experts on causes and treatments.
- Link to the national crisis resources (988 Crisis Lifeline and others, see resources below).
- Monitor comments on social media posts for indications that others are considering suicide or for hurtful posts. Remove inappropriate posts.
- Highlight the value of opening up to others and reaching out for support.
The goal is to “communicate the importance of the issue and encourage coping behaviors without normalizing suicide.”
|Provide a content notice with space to scroll away.||Depict the method of suicide or the location where it occurred (including in linked media postings).|
|Look at the journal article you are posting (at least the headline and the image) before reposting and linking to it||Say that someone “committed” suicide.|
|Say that someone “died by suicide.”||Use terms like “successful,” “unsuccessful,” “failed attempt,” or “finally at peace” when discussing suicide.|
|Indicate that suicide is complex and can be prevented.||Share the content of a suicide note.|
|Include links to resources for seeking help (see below) and websites that contain information about suicide prevention, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the Jed Foundation.||Frame suicide as a solution to a problem.|
|Tag experts on suicide prevention and/or amplify their posts.||Assume you know why someone died by suicide.|
|Monitor replies to your posts for triggering content.|
The recommendations are presented in the January/February 2023 issue of Missouri Medicine by Jessica A. Gold, MD., a member of the APA Council on Communications, and colleague Simone A. Bernstein, M.D., both at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, and Brianna J. Engelson, M.D., with the University of Minnesota and Christine Yu Moutier, M.D., with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in New York City.2
- National 988 Crisis Line - call or text 988, or chat 988lifeline.org
- Crisis Textline: text TALK to 741741
- Trevor Project: text START to 678-678, call 866-488-7368 (support for LGBTQ youth)
- Veterans Crisis Line: Call 800-273-8255 or text 838255
- Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
- Reporting on Suicide
- Engelson, B. J., Bernstein, S. A., Moutier, C. Y., & Gold, J. A. (2023). Content Notice: Guidelines to Discuss Suicide on Social Media. Missouri medicine, 120(1), 15–20.
- Stone DM, Mack KA, Qualters J. Notes from the Field: Recent Changes in Suicide Rates, by Race and Ethnicity and Age Group — United States, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2023;72:160–162. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7206a4