Depicting Suicide: Conveying Hope and Recovery in Entertainment

March 15, 2019

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Elly Stout, MS, SPRC Director, Education Development Center

For more than 15 years, SPRC has helped connect prevention practitioners to the latest evidence and tools for safe and effective suicide prevention messaging. We were part of developing the first national recommendations for news media reporting on suicide and continue to help promote them. We also provided key input on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Framework for Successful Messaging, which offers guidance to those messaging to the public about suicide, and recently released tools to support the strategy element of that model.

As part of our ongoing work to provide resources that help prevention programs influence all kinds of messaging about suicide, SPRC participated in an Action Alliance meeting with suicide prevention experts and entertainment industry representatives to identify guidance for depicting suicide in entertainment storylines. The result was released this week: the first-ever National Recommendations for Depicting Suicide. This new resource can assist all of us in the field to help promote authentic portrayals of people affected by suicide that convey hope and recovery—whether we’re connecting with a theater director, documentarian, or producer, at the local or national level.

The field of suicide prevention has long focused on trying to improve reporting and messaging related to suicide. We know that certain messaging about suicide can inadvertently increase risk, while messaging that features stories of hope and recovery can have a beneficial effect on people who are struggling. Over time, we’ve become more adept at working with the media to promote safe reporting, and also become more nuanced and strategic in our own prevention messaging. However, one form of messaging that hasn’t received as much attention is entertainment content. Recent fictional depictions of suicide, such as the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, have highlighted the need for tools to engage with entertainment media more proactively.

Developed with support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), the new Action Alliance recommendations draw on suicide prevention best practice, tailored for practical use in the entertainment industry. This resource aims to help those in the entertainment industry—including content creators, scriptwriters, and producers—tell more balanced and authentic stories about suicide. The recommendations include guidance on crafting safe portrayals of suicide death, connecting viewers to available resources, using nonjudgmental language, and conveying the grieving and healing process of people who have lost someone to suicide.

So what does this mean for those of us in the suicide prevention field? Even if we don’t connect with large broadcast networks, many of us regularly encounter creative individuals who want to use their talents to raise awareness and promote suicide prevention. Whether we’re working with the town playwright, our local PBS station, or family or friends who work in the entertainment industry, we all have opportunities to share this important resource. Let’s help promote stories that acknowledge the complexity of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, depict hope and recovery, encourage those who are struggling to reach out, and resonate more deeply with the real experiences many of us have had.