‘Suicide Season’: Warnings Raised About Media Portrayals of Death

Local newspapers often put crime stories, including those involving death by suicide, on the front page. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
Local newspapers often put crime stories, including those involving death by suicide, on the front page. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)
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On February 25, an 18-year-old attempted to jump off of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva bridge. As she stood on the bridge’s edge, reporters arrived and began to interview her and ask her her reasons.

The woman was soon surrounded by the journalists. They placed a camera in front of her face, questioned her, and spoke to her as she cried. She said she was depressed after breaking up with her partner and being kicked out from her family home, according to video from the day. The journalists tried to dissuade her but she insisted on following through. On Facebook, commenters accused her of seeking attention and fame, and joked about her suicide attempt.

Eventually, the woman came down from the bridge.

For Tep Pon, a reporter from Tep Pon News TV, live news broadcasts of suicide attempts can save lives.

“When we do a livestream, she will be embarrassed, so she will come down. Also, it lets her friends and family see, and they come to get her,” Pon said. “Sometimes we, as journalists, try to comfort her, but she doesn’t agree until her family comes.”

Pon has seen around four to 10 suicide cases a month, most of them seemingly the result of depression and emotional stress. Passersby notice a suicide attempt and alert police and media to keep an eye on them, he said. There have been cases where people have given up on attempting suicide due to reporters’ live broadcasts, he said.

But unsurprisingly, the issue is highly contentious.

International research has shown that “copycat” effects can lead to increased death rates following media reports of suicides. Some mental health professionals and journalism experts in the country balked at the prominence of suicide reporting in Cambodia, saying suicide attempts should be treated with greater sensitivity.

Stories of suicide have routinely been front-page news in Cambodia, as newspapers and social media pages feature photographs of people mid-flight jumping off buildings or reports of “lovesick” women who died by suicide.

Chhay Sophal, a journalism professor, said more care and ethics were needed, especially amid the rise of live Facebook broadcasts. “It is horrible to do a livestream of victims by displaying their faces, not just for those who jumped,” he said.

A meta-analysis published by the British Medical Journal in 2020 found the risk of suicide increased 13 percent after the media reported the death of a celebrity by suicide. When the suicide method used by the celebrity was reported, there was an associated 30 percent increase in deaths by the same method.

An earlier study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found the copycat effect was 14.3 times stronger for suicide stories involving celebrities; 4.03 times more for real versus fictional stories; and more pronounced in research that looked at newspapers rather than television.

Sophal encouraged journalists to receive professional training to better confront ethical issues. Exposing the identities of people attempting suicide could worsen mental health issues, he said.

Yim Sotheary, a psychotherapist and founding director of the Sneha Center, said there were better ways to help.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t like it,” Sotheary said of live broadcasts of people attempting suicide. “I’m happy if they are able to at least save someone’s life. However, they can do better. They can save someone’s life without using a camera. This will be meaningful to that person.”

It was common for good-looking victims to be highlighted by the media, and for people to ask, “She’s gorgeous, why would she do this?” But this was also getting away from the individual’s mental health needs, Sotheary said.

“Don’t [do it] just because it gets viewers and likes. Please value people’s lives and be more professional,” she said. “I’m grateful if they can at least save a life, but they need to be more professional.”

It was important to treat individual cases with respect — often, people don’t know how to get help, she said.

“For instance, he doesn’t know where he should go or how to speak out, so he keeps it to himself,” Sotheary said. “Sometimes, because of social stigma, he is less valued, respected and listened to since he has a mental health issue.”

Even seeking attention could simply be part of someone’s emotional needs and shouldn’t be judged, she added.

“We have to talk with them regarding what they want and need for this situation,” she said. “Importantly, we need to observe, listen and make conversation. If they refuse to talk, we can ask.”

Guidelines issued by suicide awareness groups say reporting on suicide should be treated as a public health issue, including providing information on warning signs of risk for suicide as well as hotline and treatment resources.

Furthermore, writers should use appropriate language: Certain phrases and words can further stigmatize suicide, spread myths and undermine suicide prevention objectives, they say, suggesting the phrases “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself” rather than “committed suicide” or “successful,” “unsuccessful” or “failed” attempts.

Stories of recovery, seeking help and positive coping skills are powerful, especially when they come from people who have experienced suicide risk. The writer should talk with mental health experts to validate facts on suicide risk and mental illness, they say.

Cambodian Journalists Alliance director Nop Vy said journalists need to understand that press freedom comes with responsibilities, and urged reporters to better understand ethics and privacy.

“The media should be re-educated on this topic,” Vy said, noting that one key was to provide comprehensive information. “Journalists should add messages or should seek more clarification from psychologists or specialists on how to keep this problem from becoming a trend,” he said.

Suicide is a serious global public health issue, with more than 700,000 people dying by suicide every year globally, according to the World Health Organization. Suicide is among the leading causes of death worldwide, with more deaths due to suicide than to malaria, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, or war and homicide. More than one in every 100 deaths in 2019 was the result of suicide, the WHO says.

“We cannot — and must not — ignore suicide,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last year. “Each one is a tragedy. Our attention to suicide prevention is even more important now, after many months living with the COVID-19 pandemic, with many of the risk factors for suicide — job loss, financial stress, and social isolation — still very much present.”

According to a WHO report, 800 Cambodian people (234 females and 566 males) died by suicide in 2019, compared to 390 in Laos, 48 in Timor-Leste and 12 in Brunei.

Sy Rato, a psychiatrist at Khema International Polyclinic, said most suicides were related to mental health.

“They [often] lack coping skills, or their coping skills are maladaptive,” he said.

Prominent stories of suicide can affect people struggling with their mental health and lead to copycats, he said.

“It’s mostly found with celebrities or someone with high status, and at that time it is called a suicide season,” he said. “That’s why we hear of people jumping off the Chroy Changva bridge almost every day.”

Rato also cautioned against live broadcasts of suicide attempts. Even if a suicide attempt is prevented, the patient could get into a worse mental state due to the attention and from reading social media comments, he said.

People should be on the lookout for warning signs in people around them, he said.

“For those wanting to help someone who wants to [attempt] suicide, it’s not difficult,” he said. “We can ask and listen without judgment, and encourage them to see a mental health professional.”

Mental health resources in Cambodia:

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained a mistranslation that characterized the journalists’ questioning on Chroy Changva bridge as confrontational.

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