Lessons learned from Robin Williams and Kurt Cobain

Why PR professionals need to know how to talk to reporters about suicide

I was at the Utah Public Information Officers Conference and saw a workshop called “How to speak to the media during a suicide incident.” It sounded interesting but not very practical. I really didn’t think I would ever need to talk about suicide while doing public relations.

It’s not that suicide isn’t a problem. Several of my friends died by suicide and my situation isn’t an anomaly. The U.S. suicide rate increased 33% between 1999 and 2017. Utah has the highest rate of depression and the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah teens.

Alarming stuff but an issue for health professionals to talk about during suicide prevention workshops like Jenny Johnson, the public information officer for the Utah Department of Health. Jenny offered this question for anyone talking to the media about suicide: Are your comments hurtful or helpful? She shared some examples of why messaging matters.

Robin Williams

The actor and comedian died from suicide on Aug. 11, 2014. The coverage about his death went on for a very long time but very few reports included information about risk factors and mental health options. Many stories were highly detailed about his method of suicide. Jenny said it is understandable that people love Williams but numerous headlines were sensational and suggested some people have the “courage to die.” She remembers seeing a tweet with an image of the genie from Aladdin with the caption, “Genie, you’re free.”

Studies showed that while calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased 50% after Williams’ death, the number of suicides in the U.S. also increased 10% during the first five months after he took his life. The greatest increase (13%) was found among males ages 30-44. In addition, researchers saw a 32.3% increase in the same method of suicide among these individuals. These results demonstrate the power our language and media coverage can have on those at risk of suicide.

Kurt Cobain

The Nirvana singer and icon died from suicide on April 5, 1994. Many suicide prevention advocates feared his death would inspire copycat suicides among vulnerable youths in the Seattle area. The advocates reached out to the media and asked reporters to include crisis hotline information with every story. The coverage included friends and family expressing their love for Kurt but condemned his choice as a reasonable solution. The result: calls to crisis hotlines went up but the suicide rate did not.

Dos and Don’ts

Jenny provided a handout from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center of what to say and not say after a suicide, including the following:

  • Don’t provide photos or videos of the location or method of death.
  • Don’t describe suicide as inexplicable or “without warning.”
  • Do provide work or family photos and a local crisis hotline phone number.
  • Do let the public know about “Warning Signs” and “What to Do” because most suicidal people do exhibit warning signs.

Immediate Application

Jenny’s presentation was interesting but it went from hypothetical to applicable the next day at work. I provide public relations to Avetta, a leading supplier of supply chain risk management tools. Avetta had just published a white paper called “Male Mental Health: Why it Matters in the Workplace.” A reporter asked to do an interview about the paper in conjunction with Suicide Prevention Month.

We set up a call to prepare the executive before he answered questions from the reporter. I shared the lessons I had just learned about terms to avoid like successful suicide, completed suicide or a person chose to kill himself. Instead, use terms such as took his own life, died from self-inflicted injury or suicide.

I asked the executive if he had a personal experience with suicide. He shared that he had a co-worker take his own life. He wondered if he should refer to him as a victim of suicide and said he had no idea his colleague was struggling. I remember Jenny talking about how we should talk about individuals for what they did in their life instead of how they died. A person may be suffering from depression, bullying or other factors, which is why it is so important to know the warning signs and to encourage people to get help.

The interview the next day was thoughtful, compelling and included lots of information about what employers can do to help employees dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts. The article helpful tips and was published in other newspapers. The story even prompted a short editorial praising Avetta for starting a meaningful conversation.

The bottom line: I was wrong. All PR professionals need to be prepared to talk about suicide. When faced with this situation, we will make a difference—and it will either be helpful or hurtful.

Here are some other resources to help PR professionals:

And finally, some resources to help anyone with suicidal thoughts: