The media is sometimes damned for its reporting on suicides and yet would be damned if it ignored an issue that places a huge burden on families and society. Researchers and social workers in the field blame "irresponsible" reporting for encouraging copycat suicides. This was one of the themes raised by the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at a weekend seminar to mark World Suicide Prevention Day today.
Centre director Paul Yip Siu-fai said media reports especially affected young people. A widow told the seminar how reports of a famous pop star's suicide had brought out more negative emotions in her depressed husband, who eventually took his own life. An online report of her husband's death included distressing animation and photographs taken from social media.
A suicide, as a symptom of clinical illness that is often unrecognised or inadequately treated, is a legitimate news event. Regulation of the reporting of it is incompatible with our core value of free speech. A sense of responsibility and sensitivity in reporting it is, therefore, a matter of judgment. This is especially so because the internet has become a platform for gathering more personal information on victims, and opened up other ways of distributing news, such as animation and videos.
That said, it is the stigma attached to suicide, not sensational or irresponsible reporting, that is the biggest obstacle to combating it through adequate care for people at risk, according to Yip. In this respect, as he writes in an article on the opposite page, massive public education programmes have had limited impact.
His argument that new, innovative methods of targeting specific groups or creatively using social media need to be developed and tested is worthy of government support. No stone should be left unturned to avoid any preventable and unnecessary death.