The Papageno effect


By Annan Boodram – The Caribbean Voice

Researchers have shown that even subtle changes in language can change reality (Borowditsky, 2011). Words can construct a reality of hope and acceptance, or despair and rejection. And when we’re talking about suicide, those words can be a matter of life or death. In this context the campaign to persuade media globally to train their reporters and journalists to use suicide appropriate language is ongoing.

The Caribbean media is slowly climbing on board, especially in Trinidad and Tobago where guidelines are in place; training has been provided to media, and continual media monitoring takes place.

But exactly what does suicide appropriate language entail? Perhaps we can start with the word commit as in “A mentally ill woman who pushed a stranger in front of a train to her death, committed suicide in prison….” (New York City Daily News). The word commit has negative connotations and should never be used with suicide. Replacement terms include, ‘died by suicide’, ‘suicided’, ‘a victim of suicide’ or even ‘killed by suicide’ since suicide is now recognized as a killer, just like cancer for example.

While it is well known that the manner in which the media reports suicide can lead to a suicide contagion or the Werther Effect, thereby resulting in even more suicides, it has also been determined that media reporting can lead to the ‘Papageno Effect’ – the protective effect that can result in people been better able to cope with challenges and stress and thus not resorting to suicide.

In 2010, Niederkrotenthaler et al concluded that prevention of suicidal behaviour by media reports is possible if media publishes articles on individuals who adopted coping strategies other than suicidal behavior in adverse circumstances and if media also provides information about where to seek help and advice. The study found that the most important content that reduced suicide was focusing on suicidal thoughts rather than suicidal actions. This is because reporting suicidal thoughts, as opposed to actions, could help the individual engage with the concept of going on living.

To prevent the Werther Effect and foster the Papanego Effect, suicide, and related coverage should exclude information on suicide methods, avoid implying that suicide is “caused” by any single factor or event (such as bullying), and keep the word “suicide” out of headlines. As well, media should avoid details of the suicide method, photo(s) of the deceased, admiration of the deceased, the idea that suicide is unexplainable, repetitive or excessive coverage, front-page coverage, exciting reporting, romanticized and/or simplistic reasons for the suicide or approval of the suicide. Also, media should not propagate myths and misinformation about suicide, such as, for example, that suicide is a selfish act. And media should refrain from using the term ‘committed suicide’; use instead ‘died by suicide’ or ‘a suicide victim’.

On the other hand, media reports should include: alternatives to suicide (such as counseling and other treatment), resource information for those with suicidal ideation (especially what is available at the local or regional level as easy and quick accessibility is important), examples of positive outcomes of suicidal crises (such as calling a suicide hotline, applying prevention strategies, prevention work done by NGOs), warning signs of suicidal behaviour, how to approach a suicidal person especially use of emphatic communication and strategies to build self-esteem and provide coping skills.

The Caribbean Voice appeals to the media to use suicide appropriate language in its reportage and, if necessary, ensure requisite training is provided towards this end. Among the many entities that can provide such training is The Caribbean Voice.

Avoid:

  • Details of the method;
  • The word “suicide” in the headline;
  • Photo(s) of the deceased;
  • The word commit with reference to suicide;
  • Admiration of the deceased;
  • The idea that suicide is unexplainable;
  • Repetitive or excessive coverage;
  • Frontpage coverage;
  • Exciting reporting;
  • Romanticized reasons for the suicide;
  • Simplistic reasons for suicide;
  • Speculations about causes;
  • Language that seeks to apportion blame;
  • Approval of the suicide;
  • Referring to suicide as ‘successful’. A suicide death is a tragedy, not a success.

Convey:

  • Alternatives to suicide (i.e. treatment);
  • Community resource information for those with suicidal ideation;
  • Examples of a positive outcome of a suicidal crisis (i.e. calling a suicide hotline);
  • Warning signs of suicidal behaviour;
  • How to approach a suicidal person including use of emphatic communication;
  • Strategies to build self-esteem and provide coping skills;
  • Contact info to get help, such as the Suicide Helpline.

As well other language modifications include:

  • “Suicide attempt-survivor” which reflects the field’s very recent acknowledgment of the value and worth of people with a history of suicide attempts;
  • “Suicide loss-survivor” in place of “survivor,” to describe loves ones of the suicide victim;
  • “Suicide contagion” instead of copycat (copycatting) which indicates that someone died by suicide in the same manner as someone else. One problem is that the term “copycat” is associated with children, as in, “Mom, Jamal is being a copycat. Tell him to stop.” This suggests that the people who died by suicide were in some way immature or couldn’t think for themselves. Another problem is that it could suggest that someone who wasn’t suicidal was inspired to die by suicide.

Mindframe (https://mindframe.org.au/suicide/communicating-about-suicide) 1s the most comprehensive guideline for communication about suicide. Developed for Australian media it is now the global source for similar guidelines everywhere else. Media can easily use mindframe to train their reporters and journalists about reportage on suicide.

The Caribbean Voice can help you access help for any and all mental health issues. Please email us at caribvoice@aol.com or thecaribbeanvoiceinc@gmail.com. What’s App 646-461-0574 or 592-621-6111. Also check out our website at http://www.caribvoice.org for more information.

 

About caribvoice

Free lance journalist, educator and community activist. Guyana born New York based.
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