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Eradicating suicide: Tips for better public service messaging

By CARF International

As suicide rates edge up, many human service organizations are challenged to publicly talk about the issue in responsible and effective ways.

Recent research shows suicides rose in 49 of 50 states between 2014 and 2016. While multiple approaches are being taken to attempt to solve that issue, the human services community can do much to help by educating Americans about the scope of the problem — including its causes, warning symptoms, and possible solutions. Discussing suicide still engenders discomfort in many people, and knowing how to talk about it appropriately and effectively is crucial to success.

“Communications can be a powerful tool to promote resiliency, encourage help-seeking, publicize prevention successes and encourage actions that help prevent suicide,” reports the Washington, D.C.-based Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “It’s critical to ensure messages coming from the suicide prevention messengers are accurate, safe, and effective so they also shape and transform the public conversation.”

In recognition of national Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, here are suggestions for best practices from the Action Alliance regarding anti-suicide messaging.

  • Focus on the solutions, not the problem itself. Suggesting concrete ways to help could empower the 94 percent of Americans who say they’d be willing to help if they knew someone close to them was contemplating suicide. Straightforward directions could also help overcome barriers to assisting potential victims, including confusion about where to find help and fear of saying something that could make the problem worse.
  • Reinforce the concept that suicide is preventable, a belief held by 94 percent of Americans. Your messaging should emphasize the ratio of suicide caused by treatable mental illness and/or negative thought patterns, either of which could have a huge impact on one's ability to cope with daily challenges.
  • Ensure information used in your messaging is science-based, strategic, and safe.
  • Emphasize the important role of the public in supporting people who are at risk.
  • Don’t show or describe suicide methods, locations, or personal details about victims. That could encourage imitation, cause potential victims to identify with someone else’s situation, or even serve as a “how-to” guide.
  • Avoid over-dramatizing suicide cases. Potential victims may start seeing the act as a romantic or heroic gesture or a way to get attention, albeit posthumously.
  • Avoid implying that suicide is a common, inevitable, or acceptable solution to life’s challenges. “The vast majority of people who face adversity, mental illness and other challenges even those in high-risk groups find support, treatment or other ways to cope,” notes the Alliance.
  • Avoid attributing suicide cases to single causes such as breakups or job losses, bullying, sexual orientation, PTSD, etc. In most cases many elements are involved in the decision, and pointing to one event or cause implies there are valid reasons for taking one’s own life, discouraging the idea suicide is preventable.
  • Limit your use of the term “stigma.” Overly publicizing stereotypes about mental illness and suicide victims can often act to enforce rather than reduce negative beliefs and attitudes.
  • Avoid terms such as “successful suicide" or “failed attempt,” the latter of which points to some kind of inadequacy when suicide doesn't happen. The expression “committed suicide" is also not helpful, since it implies the victim is some kind of criminal.

If you're a healthcare organization, any messaging you conduct on the topic of suicide should be clear, free of bias, and scientifically based. Make sure you're establishing yourself as a source of valuable information in the ongoing fight against suicide.

(Behavioral Health,Child and Youth Services)

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