Mass Media and High Suicide Rates in Nigeria! The Case of Contagion Self-Slaughter?

The alarming rate of suicides that took place in Nigeria in 2019 is still coming as a puzzle to many people. It is now a fact that 2019 recorded the highest rate of suicide incidents among Nigerians in modern times with 70 reported cases in the media. Some analysts have argued that the media are majorly or partly responsible for suicide rates in most societies based on what is called ‘suicide contagion’ which is a form of copy cat suicide. This means that people are likely to commit suicide after exposure to suicidal behaviour especially through the mass media. Can this be said to be the case with Nigerian media coverage of suicide?

The Facts

A study revealed that a total of 70 suicide cases were recorded in 2019 out of which 74% (52 persons) were cases involving men while 26% (18 persons) were women. The study showed that more Nigerian men committed suicide in 2019 than women. The study carried out by hypothesis.com, an independent research group, was a content analysis of reported cases of suicide in both mainstream and social media from January to December 2019. The figures showed that 70 suicide cases were recorded in 2019 out of which 74% (52 persons) were cases involving men while 26% (18 persons) were women. The study further showed that 22 students committed suicide in 2019. Out of the entire suicide cases, 54 were young adults/adolescents (here operationalized as age 39 and below) while 16 were old adults (here operationalized as age 40 and above). One child (a 9-year-old girl) was involved and included among the young adults that committed suicide in 2019.

Massmediang adopted the data journalism technique in reporting the trend of suicides in 2019 with facts from the study conducted by hypothesis.com. Full list of all suicide victims is also available.

The complete list of suicide victims in various states of the country were also recorded in the study. Most of the incidents were cross-checked in both social and mainstream media to further measure authenticity of the incidents. The doubtful incidents which appeared in just one or two social media platforms were not recorded.

The study further showed that only three cases were murder-suicide incidents while the rest involved only the suicide victims. Data further showed that the Southwest geopolitical zone recorded the highest suicide incidents with 34 (49%) of the entire cases while the Northeast recorded the lowest with just one case (1%). Southeast had six suicide cases (9%), South South recorded 13 (19%) of the incidents, Northwest recorded six (9%) of the incidents, while North Central geopolitical zone recorded ten (14%) of the incidents.

It was further gathered that the most common method of suicide in Nigeria in 2019 was the use of Sniper insecticide which had 38% of all cases, followed by hanging (27%), and ‘others’ (26%). Others here refers to the use of other methods such as use of gun, jumping into river, setting self ablaze, drinking other chemicals not Sniper, jumping in front of moving truck, among others. Sixteen percent of the methods were not stated in the reports so such incidents were classified as ‘unknown’.

Lagos state had the highest cases of suicide in 2019 with 21 out of the 68 incidents. This was followed by Oyo, Bayelsa and Ogun states which had four incidents each, then Delta, and Rivers states which recorded three incidents each. States that had only two reported suicide incidents are Osun, Ekiti, Enugu, Anambra, Benue, Imo, Edo, and Kogi. Those that had just one incident of suicide as reported in the media are Ondo, Akwa Ibom, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Zamfara, Borno, Niger, Kwara, Nasarawa, and Plateau state. The Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, recorded two incidents. The following states had no suicide incident in 2019, Abia, Ebonyi, Cross River, Sokoto, Bauchi, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, and Gombe state.

Note that these cases are based on reports on mainstream and social media. Where an incident appeared only in just one or two social media platforms without presence in mainstream media or a number of other social media such incident was not recorded. Such a report on an incident in Abia State allegedly involving a retired civil servant was not recorded for lacking presence in other news platforms. There were no reported suicide cases in the entire North Eastern states, except one incident in Borno State. Every other zone recorded at least one incident in most of the states in 2019.

What is Suicide Contagion?

Also called copycat suicide or emulation suicide, this is exposure to suicidal behaviour or death as a result of suicide primarily through media reports and the likelihood of such exposure leading to fresh suicide by someone exposed to such media reports.

It is emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge, accounts from others, or depictions of the original suicide in the media. Suicide contagions refers to exposure to suicide, either directly or through media and entertainment, which may make people more likely to resort to suicidal behaviours themselves. Mental health experts and suicidologists believe this is possible and the media are responsible for many suicide incidents.

Suicide contagion, according to HHS.gov is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide which can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.

Suicide contagion is emulation or copy cat suicide which occurs after exposure to suicidal behaviour thorough the media or among an individual’s peers. Mental health experts argue that exposure to suicide, either directly or through media and could likely lead to resort to suicidal behaviors themselves.

Allegations of Suicide Contagion Against the Media by Researchers

Some researchers have carried out studies to prove that the media are responsible for a number of suicide incidents. In a paper, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, it was stated that some specific journalistic practices – such as including lots of details about a death by suicide, or glamorizing these incidents – may make suicide contagion worse.

Those who carried out the research gave explanations in a writeup by TIME. “We’re not saying reporting on suicide is bad,” says Dr. Ayal Schaffer, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the new study. “Our goal is not to blame journalists; it’s not to tell journalists how to do their jobs. But it is to provide a pretty strong research base to support specific guidelines about how reporting on suicide should be done.”

The researchers had analyzed stories about suicide that appeared in 13 publications with wide circulations in Toronto. (Most were Canadian outlets, but the New York Times was also included.) They found almost 17,000 stories that mentioned suicide, including 6,367 articles in which it was a major focus, published between 2011 and 2014. About 950 people in Toronto died by suicide during this timespan.

Next, the researchers analyzed whether specific characteristics of the stories were associated with increases or decreases in suicide deaths in the week following publication, as compared to a control week when no major stories were published and no high-profile people died by suicide.

They found that stories about celebrity suicides, headlines that included information about how a suicide was completed and statements that made suicide seem inevitable were all correlated with suicide contagion. (Other research backs this up: In the four months after Robin Williams’ highly publicized 2014 death by suicide, one study found a 10% increase in suicides across the U.S.) Meanwhile, negative descriptions of suicide and messages of hope were associated with a protective effect, though neither reached statistical significance, perhaps because they appeared in articles so infrequently.

Many of these findings were in line with existing media guidelines for reporting on suicide. TIME further writes that the research comes shortly after a string of stories pushed suicide to the forefront of the news cycle this summer. In June, fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide just days apart. The same week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report about rising suicide rates across the country. More recently were stories about a study linking climate change and rising temperatures to a potential increase in deaths by suicide.

Blaming the Nigerian Media

The situation has also been attributed to media reports to some extent especially with the emphasis on the use of Sniper insecticide by suicide victims. The social media are particularly responsible for this observed emphasis. Because the social media are looking for traffic, anything goes for as long as it will attract viewers. While main stream media would often write that the victim drank ‘poisonous substance’ the social media will emphasize that the victim drank sniper. However, the blame against the media across the world, including Nigeria goes beyond the method of suicide to the details in the report.

 

READ ALSO: LIST OF SUICIDE VICTIMS IN NIGERIA, 2019

 

Some Nigerian scholars have suggested that the media contribute in some measures to the spate of suicides in the society. The Nigerian mass media are not an exception. Both social and mainstream media published suicide incidents mostly with details of how the victims committed suicide. Suicidologists whose main interest is the study of suicides have argued that the media indirectly cause people to commit suicide. What is the view of Nigerian scholars on whether the media in the country are culpable in the spate of suicides in 2019?

Prof. Oso talks about possible moral panic caused by the media and the unethical practices of social media when reporting sensitive incidents.

“There is the moral panic argument that the more the media pay attention to some social problems the more those social problems increase. So it’s more like what we call the amplification spiral. The more media pay attention to a social issue the more it seems to increase. It’s just like this rape issue. The way rape is reported now it’s as if rape is going on every day. But rape has been there before; but because society is paying more attention now so the media is also paying attention. So that’s where you find media agenda feeding into public agenda and the agenda of the state.

“Social media people whether we like it or not, a good number of them are interested in the number of cliques. That’s one of the drawbacks of social media. That’s why they don’t bother about ethics, they don’t bother about social responsibility,” he said.

Prof. Gambo argues that there needs to be more research with extensive methodology before concluding that the media cause suicide incidents;

“Actually there is a factor if you look at the tendency to replicate. For instance, sniper that is formulated to fight a different thing has now emerged as a major killer. And it’s even a thing of pride these days for one to say well if they push too hard I’ll just go and take sniper. But whether actually we can blame the media in terms of causation is another thing entirely. We’ve not had significant number of studies and we have not used extensive methodologies to be able to arrive at such causations. We need to investigate more.”

Prof Gambo further suggested that suicide incidents could be reported responsibly. “There are many ways of reporting events and issues without even going into the gross description of such events and issues. If it is an ethical issue where we say we don’t want to lead people into details, we want to conceal some of the details because of possible offence or because we don’t want to lead people to commit suicide yet on the other hand we have a responsibility to report, we can report suicide using the appropriate language without going into that kind of details. This is because by presenting such description we’re automatically likely to be teaching those who have the tendency to commit suicide to do so.

“Whether it is the social media or conventional media the question of causation must be properly answered because you need the appropriate methodology to arrive at that kind of conclusion as to whether it is a mere association or there is a causal relationship.  I don’t think that we can blame the media for that. People have different reasons for committing suicide. We might say the media are accessories to suicide, may be if we have substantial evidence we can say they have contributed a quarter but to what extent is this? It is very very dangerous to go into that kind of conclusion without proper studies. You already have a foundation for suicide in most instances but we can say the media may be responsible for a fraction but I don’t know the fraction,” he concluded.

Summing Up

Professionalism should be observed by the media in reporting suicide. But most times it seems this suggestion is directed at mainstream media operators and professional journalists. This is because social media operators ans so-called citizen journalists slaughter professionalism in journalism on the altar of search for traffic. This issue of blaming the media on suicide contagion remains controversial.

Despite the controversial nature of the blame of suicide contagion against the media, there are suggestions that look realistic in an attempt to prevent the media from aiding suicide directly or indirectly. The suggestion by HHS.gov is very interesting and upholds professionalism in reporting suicide.

“The risk for suicide contagion as a result of media reporting can be minimized by factual and concise media reports of suicide. Reports of suicide should not be repetitive, as prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion. Suicide is the result of many complex factors; therefore media coverage should not report oversimplified explanations such as recent negative life events or acute stressors. Reports should not divulge detailed descriptions of the method used to avoid possible duplication. Reports should not glorify the victim and should not imply that suicide was effective in achieving a personal goal such as gaining media attention. In addition, information such as hotlines or emergency contacts should be provided for those at risk for suicide.

“Following exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family or peer group, suicide risk can be minimized by having family members, friends, peers, and colleagues of the victim evaluated by a mental health professional,” HHS.gov suggests.

Andrew Seaman, the ethics committee chair at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and a former health reporter, adds his voice to the quest for a more professional and ethical way of reporting suicide in the society. Seaman points out that he has seen improvements in the way stories on suicide are covered. He says this points to an evolving understanding that, while a journalist’s first responsibility is reporting the facts, certain issues, such as suicide and school shootings, require more nuanced news judgment than others, particularly given the body of research supporting theories like suicide contagion.

Seaman further notes that while there’s similar research pertaining to other public health issues that aren’t regulated by journalism guidelines – the ways in which youth exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to risky drinking, for example – Seaman says his philosophy on suicide reporting goes back to one of SPJ’s guiding principles: Minimize harm.

“You really have to think of the story and say, ‘What are my responsibilities here, and where do they end?’” Seaman says. “Do I really need to include the method? Do I need to go into detail here? In most cases, I don’t think you have to.”

Ayal Scaffer who was a co-author of the study on “The association between suicide deaths and putatively harmful and protective factors in media reports” published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggested that journalists should omit information about how a death occurred or speculation about causes. He argues that the more vivid a depiction of death, the more it may contribute to suicide contagion.

“The more someone is able, in a very specific way, to get connected to this story — and if they can see themselves in that person or wanting to be that person or admiring that person — that story becomes a very powerful driver to their behavior,” Schaffer explains. The inverse of this theory may explain why including negative details — that a death occurred as part of a murder-suicide, for example — may help dissuade suicide attempts.

Mark Sinyor who is the lead investigator of that study and also a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says the framing of a story is important too. According to what Sinyor told TIME, “Ideally, journalists would not treat suicide as an entertainment story but as what it truly is: a health story. Suicide invariably arises from treatable mental disorders. Most people who experience suicidal crises find paths to resilience, and there is no reason anyone has to die by suicide.”

Schaffer adds that including “messages of hope” — pointing to states or countries that have seen improvements in suicide prevention, for example, or mentioning people who have recovered from suicidal crises — can also help.

“Part of the message of hope is, at a macro level, the sense that we can actually do something, because we need to fight against this sense that there’s hopelessness and helplessness associated with suicide,” Schaffer says. “We know that there’s lots of things we can do that can actually reduce the rates of suicide — not to zero, but to much less than it is.”

 

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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