Word Choice: RISE Program Sponsors "Speaking on Suicide" Media Seminar


An ideal news reporter tells facts and details. Yet, there are times when reporters place too many details in stories, especially in the area of suicide reporting. For Shelby Rowe, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services' suicide prevention program manager, there are ways to report on suicide without inflicting greater harm to affected families and community members.


This was the topic that Rowe, a Chickasaw Nation member, brought to the RISE program offices with her presentation "Speaking on Suicide: Tips for Safe and Successful Messaging," on January 10, 2018. At least 16 Anadarko area concerned citizens attended the event.


"A lot of it comes in the language used," Rowe said about suicide reporting missteps. "In reporting on suicide, it being as simple as if someone makes a suicide attempt of calling it a 'failed attempt.' Someone surviving a life-threatening incident is never a failure.


"I don't envy reporters for being in a position," Rowe continued. "Oftentimes, you have 250 words or less to explain why something happened. Suicide is a complex phenomenon for multiple reasons. Trying to assign it to one particular cause can send the wrong message to a community."


Other missteps include media using graphic language in regard to celebrity suicides or using images of people clutching their heads to portray depression. However, Rowe was not there to be negative. Instead, she used multiple examples of how the media can use positive reporting as a method of "good suicide prevention without ever reporting on suicide," she said, referring to this by the term "positive narrative."

 Shelby Rowe


Shelby Rowe, Suicide prevention program manager with oklahoma dept. of mental health and substance abuse services.  


"For those who are struggling, help is available," Rowe said. "We do stories on other health issues. We report on diabetes or breast cancer. We tell the stories of families and survivors, how they get through. With suicide, because the death is traumatic or sensationalized, it eclipses the fact that there are a lot of people in every community living in recovery that are working hard. There are those feel-good stories around suicide that are waiting to be told."


For Rowe, the same rules that the media should follow can also be applied to social media users who may make inconsiderate or even hateful commentary about those who have committed suicide. Rowe said that, in many cases, people are at differing cycles of grief when they respond on social media.


"When everyone is trying to express their pain and feeling, they come up against each other," Rowe said. "It gets ugly. I would encourage, for the families who are struggling, either create a 'closed group' where they can talk to each other and share their feelings for one another, that's not out on a public forum. Social media can be a great way of keeping people connected, especially when they are in different states, but not everything needs to be in public conversation."


Rowe also suggested that social media users experiencing negative behavior should block or unfollow harmful individuals or avoid sites that could cause emotional harm.


"You don't have to expose yourself to that pain," Rowe said. "You can be very protective of what you allow yourself to see."


Conversely, those who may be suicide survivors or be a family member affected by suicide may want to tell their story. While Rowe recommends always speaking with immediate family or another personal support system, she also said that one to two years of healing are necessary before sharing with those outside of family or to a group.


Rowe said that one of the most important steps in reporting these types of stories is to place contact information for getting help, such as a national suicide prevention hotline. She also said that, over the past few years, guidelines on reporting have been issued in order to change the narrative.


"I've seen it get better over the last five years," Rowe said. "There are still some bad examples but, as a whole, I think the media-press and journalism-they want to do what's right for their community. They want to get it right. They want to tell a good story."