1. Sofer, Dalia


A panel separates myths from facts.


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A panel organized by Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center and New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute-"Helping or Hurting? The Media's Impact in Reporting Mental Health"-convened last February to discuss the media's impact on public ideas about suicide and collaborative efforts at prevention. Nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide each year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Figure. Psychologist... - Click to enlarge in new window Psychologist Randi Pochtar addresses social media's impact on teen perceptions of suicide at the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center's February 27 symposium at New York University. Photo courtesy of Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center.

Alan Ross, executive director of Samaritans, and Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, kicked off the conference with a discussion of the evolution of suicide coverage by the media. Ross cited the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which allowed the writer's perspective to become part of news. But he added that it was "also a slippery slope" since the inclusion of subjective points of view could obscure the facts of an individual case or of suicide in general.


Romer agreed, noting that in media coverage of suicides, elements used by some news organizations to make a story "exciting"-sensationalism, celebrity involvement, minute depiction of method of death, speculation on "triggers," and graphic photographs-detracted public attention from more important information such as the often complex causes of suicide and who is most at risk.


Both speakers debunked popular myths about suicide, such as the notion that suicides occur more frequently during holidays or are most prevalent among young men of color. In fact, suicide rates are lowest in December and peak in the spring and fall. Moreover, those at highest risk are white middle-aged men. White men accounted for seven out of 10 suicides in 2016.


Randi Pochtar, PhD, a psychologist in the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health, spoke about the vulnerability of adolescents to media portrayals of suicide and nonsuicidal self-injury, especially tweens and teens who spend such a large portion of their day using entertainment and social media: six hours for tweens, nine hours for teens.


To help health care organizations prevent suicide deaths among patients, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has joined with such organizations as the Suicide Prevention Resource Center to develop the Zero Suicide initiative ( Supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the initiative aims to prevent suicides among people receiving care from health and behavioral health systems.


Another topic at the conference was the stigma of suicide. Filmmaker Kaitlin Sprague discussed her documentary about her brother's suicide and the subsequent shunning of her family. "By shaming people," she said, "you are shaming them into silence."-Dalia Sofer