Opinion: Talking about mental health is important, but we must be careful about the kind of conversation we have

The desire to commiserate or mourn by taking an ‘active approach’ on social media may not always be the most appropriate

Sam Matthews


Sam Matthews



Mental Health

There needs to be a focus on addressing the root of the problems people are facing

The results of a recent study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, PLOS-One, should prompt a wider conversation about an important issue that society is facing today.

The study, conducted by researchers at the prestigious Columbia University, looked at media coverage of the suicide of comedian Robin Williams last year, and the subsequent rate of suicide in the population. It documented a 10% increase in suicides following Williams’ death.

These findings will not surprise everyone. Similar studies have been done in the past bearing out similar results —indeed, they form part of basic media training.

The theory is that publicising a suicide can lead to emulation in an at-risk person. The event or its aftermath can serve as a trigger, — sometimes known as ‘ contagion’ or ‘The Werther Effect’. These clusters, or imitation-type events, also occur more frequently in teens and young adults.

It is for this reason the World Health Organisation has well-established standards on the reporting of such events. However, some recent social media commentary suggests the wider public are largely unaware of these guidelines or their purpose.

The advent of social media has been incredibly liberating for certain segments of society. It has given a voice and a platform to many people who previously felt they had little or no way of making themselves heard. This benefit comes with a certain element of risk. In some ways, the realm of social media has become a ‘wild west’, where people say what they want, seemingly oblivious to the consequences.

In the wake of some tragedies, I have seen people — no doubt well meaning — taking to social media with sometimes poorly thought-out or insensitively-timed posts and comments. Often well intentioned, these may be counterproductive.

As well as a part of how people communicate with their friends and communities, we also know that increasing numbers of people are now getting their news from social media.

While research indicates that the number of suicides can increase following a high-profile celebrity suicide, the Columbia study’s authors say this is the first study that has examined the effect of a high-profile suicide on the general population within the modern era of the 24-hours news cycle.

Also: “Even if traditional media outlets follow established reporting guidelines for celebrity suicides, the role of social media speculation and news dissemination may counter any prevention messages that are disseminated in traditional sources,” said the report’s authors.

A considerable number of people now have instant access to audiences of hundreds, even thousands of people, via social media. They can publish any message at any time, to be read by anyone. In a relatively small community where a lot of people know each other, or have only one or two degrees of separation, things can get around quickly.

And while the Columbia study was specifically about the effect of a celebrity suicide on a large population, it’s perhaps harder to gauge what effect a local tragedy might have in a significantly smaller community.

One research paper from 2014 looked at two highly-publicised local teen suicides in Ottawa, Canada, and found a resulting increase in the number of mental health presentations to the local paediatric Emergency Department. While that paper ultimately agreed that mental health literacy is key to early detection and treatment, it also noted that ‘more evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of media-based (mental health) awareness campaigns and what effect it may have on presentations to the ED’.

I am not suggesting that keeping quiet about the suicide crisis is a solution. But it requires a more considered response than a ‘talk about it as much as possible’ view espoused by some, which does not seem to be working. Talking is important, but we must try to ensure it is the right type of conversation we’re having.

The desire to commiserate or mourn by taking an ‘active approach’ — often by highlighting an issue — may not always be the most appropriate. There needs to be a focus on addressing the root of the problems people are facing. We must also educate others about the consequences of what they say and how they use social media.

If you have been affected by an issue raised in this article, you can call Console 24/7 Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 /Samaritans Helpline 116 123.