For police

Australian research has indicated that police and emergency services are a major source of information for most news organisations. Information is accessible, timely, and viewed by the media as having high human or dramatic interest.

The very nature of policing means officers are required to deal with incidents involving suicide and people experiencing mental health concerns on a regular basis.

Situations involving suicide or mental health concerns will often be seen as newsworthy and police may be the first to field media enquiries.

For this reason, police services have an important role to play in supporting appropriate media coverage of suicide, mental health concerns and mental health.

Talking to media about suicide

Consider whether to make a comment
  • What does your media policy say about talking to the media generally? What does it say about talking to the media, or the community, about suicide specifically?
  • Ensure that you are the most appropriate person to make comment and seek support from your media unit.
  • Consider whether the case at hand is one that is likely to be reported by the media. If so, making any suggestions about the cause of death may not be in the best interests of the person’s family or the community.
  • In some cases, describing the death as ‘non-suspicious’ may lessen interest in the story but in other cases such as the death of a prominent person this may lead to heightened interest.
  • Remember, only a coroner can confirm that a death is a suicide.
Consider how much detail to disclose
  • Consider the impact of disclosing details about the method or specific location of a suicide? Reporting that includes a detailed description of the method or location has been linked to further suicides.
  • Have journalists been given access to the scene and an opportunity to take pictures or footage? Images of the location where a suicide has occurred have been linked to further deaths at that location.
  • Journalists have codes of practice that discourage any detailed description of the method or location of a suicide death. You may have the opportunity to remind them of this if you consider any questions to be inappropriate.
  • Have you inadvertently speculated on the cause of a suicide death? Simplistic explanations that suggest suicide might be the result of a single factor or event are unhelpful to the community.
  • Have you considered specific cultural protocols?

Use appropriate language

Language that might sensationalise suicide or present it as an option for dealing with problems has been shown to be problematic. It is best to use:

  • Terms such as ‘non fatal’ rather than ‘unsuccessful suicide’ to describe suicidal actions
  • Descriptions such as ‘took their own life’ or ‘died by suicide’ rather than ‘successful suicide’ or ‘committed suicide’.

Access the Mindframe language guide here.

Talking to media about mental health concerns

Consider whether to make a comment

Make sure you are aware of your media policy and what it says about talking to media about a person’s mental health status.

  • Ensure you are the most appropriate person to make comment and, if so, access support from your media unit.
  • If you do state or infer that a person has a particular mental illness, ensure that a reliable source has confirmed the diagnosis and you are not speaking only on the basis of observed behaviour.
  • Consider the potential impact that disclosing a person’s mental illness may have on the angle a journalist uses in the story.

Use appropriate language

Using the correct language is very important. Some derogatory terms can perpetuate stigma and discrimination.

Clarify language that could be misinterpreted
  • Police statements such as ‘detained under the Mental Health Act’ or ‘sent for a mental health assessment’ might not be well understood by a journalist and their audience. These terms, while correct, could be misinterpreted without clarification.
  • Be careful when talking about a patient who has ‘absconded from hospital’. Will the journalist interpret this as ‘escaped’ with a connotation of ‘danger’ or threat to community safety?
  • Adding a clarifying statement, such as ‘the hospital is concerned for the safety of the patient’ could reduce the perceived link between mental illness and public safety.

Access the Mindframe language guide here.

Ensure your interactions do not reinforce common stereotypes
  • The very nature of policing means that there tends to be exposure to people in crisis situations. Consider how these situations may be handled to maintain the person’s privacy and dignity and reduce community fear.
  • Consider whether your interactions might contribute to the perceived link between mental illness and violence. Research indicates that most people with a mental illness have no history of violent behaviour and are more likely to be victims of violence.
  • Is it appropriate to provide some context surrounding an incident? For example, where violence occurs it is often in the context of drug use, distressing hallucinations or treatment that may not have been effective.
  • Can media access photographs or footage of a person with a mental illness interacting with the police? Consider the impact this might have.

Refer journalists to the Mindframe guidelines

Are journalists working with you aware of the Mindframe guidelines for suicide and mental ill-health?

Recommend that journalists access the Mindframe website for appropriate help-seeking advice, as well as for contact details of organisations that may assist with the story.

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