The Importance of Safe Messaging

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Sydney White

Four years ago, I was a junior in high school looking to amp up my resume for college. Looking for an internship in the Psychology world as a 16 year old is not an easy feat. When I told the internship director what I was looking for, she told me it was unlikely I could find a position considering the confidentiality of the psychotherapy industry. Despite this setback, we were able to settle on a more public health position: statewide suicide prevention. I was skeptical at first; this was not my area of interest. That being said, I went into it with an open mindset and a desire to learn more about the field. 

My time working at the University of Connecticut Health Center was spent under Dr. Sara Wakai. The projects I focused on were the Garett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant and the Signs of Suicide prevention program. To put things into perspective: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. For every completed suicide, there are 25 attempted suicides. While gaining an initial understanding of suicide prevention and its increasing prevalence, I came to learn about Safe Messaging. For those of you who are unaware, Safe Messaging is a concept outlining how the way in which we discuss various topics (in this case, suicide) can affect readers. Certain language and media may perpetuate suicidal thoughts, and thus it is important that we talk about these triggering topics in a safe way. 

As outlined by the Action Alliance Framework for Successful Messaging, “Increased risk is associated with the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage; details about suicide method or location; stories about well-known individuals; simplistic explanations; modeling, normalizing, or glamorizing suicidal behavior; or including information that encourages identification with the person who died.” To summarize, any discussion of suicide in the media should omit specific details and glorification to reduce the risk of contagion. A perfect example of poor safe messaging is the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” Not only does this show portray extremely graphic scenes of suicide and sexual assault, but it romantisizes the aftermath of self harm and gloryfies the main character who died by suicide. 

At the end of my two summers working with Dr. Wakai, I created a prototype suicide prevention website to outline warning signs, risk factors, FAQ and debunked myths. It also contains plenty of resources to get help and self-educate on the subject. The website can be found here: https://sydo2010.wixsite.com/youareworthit.

Suicide is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. Here are some examples of how to implement safe messaging in an everyday context:

  • Instead of saying “killed themselves,” say “died by suicide.”
  • Instead of describing the location and method of suicide, keep information general. 
  • Instead of discussing the content of suicide notes, state that a note was found and it is under review.
  • Instead of depicting suicide as normal and acceptable, report that coping skills, support, and treatment work for most people who have thoughts about suicide. 
  • Rather than oversimplifying suicide, talk about warning signs and risk factors that give suicide context.