Research-based Recommendations to Improve Communications about Military and Veteran Suicide

January 31, 2013

News Type:  Weekly Spark Research

Two SPRC staff members and a colleague from the National Institute of Mental Health authored a commentary outlining research-based guidelines for safe and effective messaging about military and veteran suicide. They stress the need for widespread dissemination of these recommendations to all organizations and individuals who are speaking about military and veteran suicide.  The authors distilled guidance from four areas of research:

1) The research on suicide- and mental health-related media campaigns, which suggests that campaigns promoting relatively straightforward actions like calling a hotline may be effective, but changing complex behaviors often requires combining informational messages with other interventions. Campaigns are also more effective when they involve messages tailored to specific subpopulations and achieve repeated exposure to messages through multiple types of media.

2) The research on health communication campaigns, which reveals that messages are most effective when they are systematically planned using research so messages are tailored to defined goals, audiences, and contexts. In addition, messaging should include a “call to action” that specifies who needs to act and what they need to do. More effective efforts use audience research to create messages and materials that are relevant, credible, and culturally appropriate for a particular target audience, rather than attempting to reach a general population.

3) The literature on mental health stigma, which describes the multifaceted nature of stigma. For example, stigma includes multiple components, including: stereotypes (cognitive), prejudice (emotional), and discrimination (behavioral) aspects. In addition, there are different forms of mental health stigma: public stigma, self-stigma, and label avoidance, that is, when individuals do not acknowledge symptoms or seek services to avoid the negative consequences of being labeled with a mental illness. The authors recommend using this literature as a framework to analyze and address the particular stigma-related factors that are impeding an audience’s adoption of specific behaviors.

4) The research on safe messaging for suicide prevention, which warns against disseminating messages implying that suicide is a typical or understandable response to difficult life circumstances or that it is relatively common. In addition, messages should not glorify or romanticize people who have died by suicide, focus on the personal details of those who died, include detailed descriptions of methods, or describe suicide as inexplicable or solely the result of stress or any other single factor.

This article briefly highlights recent examples of messaging, some coming from the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, which illustrate the application of these science-based principles.

Langford, L., Litts, D, & Pearson, J. (2013). Using science to improve communications about suicide among military and veteran populations: Looking for a few good messagesAmerican Journal of Public Health, 103(1), 31-38.