How to talk about suicides

How does one talk about the dead without reliving the loss?

How does one talk about the dead without reliving the loss?

Four years ago, Kate Mulvany’s partner took his own life after a long battle with mental illness. “When most people pass away, their names are still spoken with joy, with love, with fondness,” says Mulvany. “[But] when you lose a loved one to suicide, people seem to fall silent. They don't know what's appropriate [to say], so they stop talking or completely disappear.”

For those grieving, talking about the suicide of a loved one can be as painful as it is cathartic. After all, how does one talk about the dead without reliving the loss? This is a question, among others, that we’re urged to consider on this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day.

Each year, 65,000 Australian’s attempt to take their own lives. Of these attempts, according to Suicide Prevention Australia , 2,500 cases result in death. While suicide remains a largely taboo topic, experts believe that it’s only by approaching the subject openly and responsibly – both in real life and in the media – that we can reduce the stigma of losing a loved one to suicide.

From the media’s perspective, reporting on cases of suicide can be a delicate balancing act. The biggest challenge, explains Jaelea Skehan, Project Manager of the Mindframe National Media Initiative, is in delivering accurate and responsible reportage. This means ultimately ensuring that a death is reported without placing other people at risk.


If it sounds like a huge public responsibility, it’s because it is. “There are over 100 international studies [that examined] the link between media reporting and impacts of the reporting. 87% of those studies show a link between reporting and increased rates of suicidal behaviour,” says Skehan.

To help reduce risks of copycat cases, Mindframe provides guidelines that include reducing the prominence of the story, not placing the story on the front page and not detailing methods and locations of suicides. Journalists are also advised to avoid using language or images which can “sensationalise, glorify or glamourise the death”. But how do you balance harm minimisation with the need to honour the deceased?

When Kate Mulvany’s partner Mark Priestley took his own life, she found that the media reported his death “to the ninth degree –  which was absolutely devastating”.

Because Priestley was an actor on the Channel Seven program All Saints at the time, Kate found that the increased media attention made strangers feel like they had the right to comment purely because “they'd seen every detail in the papers”.

“That made my grief even worse,” recalls Mulvany, “Because I was constantly having to answer their questions - questions I simply did not have an answer to.”

Mulvany waited four years to tell her story about her grief of losing a partner to suicide. Earlier this year Australian Story followed her journey, which gave her the chance to speak about what Priestley’s death, and life, meant to her. Mulvany says opening up about her late partner and his struggle with his mental health made her ‘breathe a little easier’ because it provided a platform to voice her frustration with the Australian mental health system. She found that in telling the story, she got to stand up and say, ‘"I haven't forgotten. It's still happening. Do something about it."

Jaelea Skehan belives that talking openly about “the impact that suicide has on families, communities, workplaces and schools” can be a powerful forum for suicide prevention. What’s more, she believes that “strengthening families and building resilience” is crucial. “It’s not all about crisis intervention. I’d like to see less people in Australia actually feeling suicidal – [it’s important to put] the focus back on the broad range of things we can do to reduce the stress people feel that gets them to that point.”

As for Mulvany, being able to celebrate her late partner’s life is a key step toward healing. “To me, Mark lived, he existed, he was beautiful, funny, charming, talented, a shining light in our lives. I'm determined that his legacy is his brilliant life, not his illness. So the friends I choose to surround myself with now are the ones that can laugh with me about Mark's life and cry with me about his loss, but are always, always ready to talk.” 


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