In a report on the government’s suicide prevention strategy, the House of Commons health select committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, raises fears that irresponsible media coverage has a damaging effect on vulnerable people.
The MPs say: “We recognise the need for programme makers to portray dramatic situations but we contend that this can be done without unnecessary and exact detail about a suicide method which could influence imitative behaviour. This is of particular concern where the method depicted is relatively uncommon and where scenes show suicide as being quick, easy and painless.”
Ofcom’s broadcasting code currently dictates that methods should not be included except where they are justified editorially and by the context. But in the report, published on Thursday, the committee says the wording is too weak.
The MPs recommend that the code “should be strengthened to ensure that detailed description or portrayal of suicide methods, including particular locations where suicide could be easily imitated, are not permissible”.
They also say more must be done to ensure the news media report suicide responsibility. The committee calls for the government to nominate an individual responsible for ensuring good practice in the media and also recommends strengthening the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) editors’ code of practice.
The editors’ code currently states that “excessive detail” should be avoided when reporting suicides. The MPs say this should be replaced with the term “unnecessary detail”, as recommended by the Samaritans, who say any mention of the method of suicide risks increasing public awareness of it.
The Samaritans chief executive, Ruth Sutherland, said: “We are pleased that our work with the media to ensure that the portrayal and coverage of suicide and attempted suicide is responsible has been acknowledged. We know that strengthening media codes of practice in this area will mean fewer people are put at risk because of irresponsible content.”
The report reiterates previous concerns raised by the committee about online content about suicide methods and urges the government to clearly state its expectations of social media companies with respect to such content and to monitor compliance.
It concludes that the government’s overall strategy on suicide prevention is “essentially sound” but says there may be gaps in implementation. The MPs say 95% of local authorities have a suicide prevention plan, but there is little or no information about the quality of those plans. It recommends local and national oversight of such plans.
There were 4,820 recorded suicides in England in 2015 but the committee suggests the true figure is likely to be higher. It says the standard of proof – beyond reasonable doubt – for findings of suicide in inquests leads to underestimating the number of people who kill themselves. Accordingly, it recommends that it should be changed to “the balance of probabilities”. Other recommendations include calling for the government to detail how different strands of the strategy will be funded and for health professionals to be trained to assess suicide risk.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “We agree with the committee that every death by suicide is a tragedy which has a devastating effect on families and communities.
“We are taking action to ensure we quality assure every local plan so they reach the most vulnerable people – and local authorities now are supported by record mental health funding, with big developments in the availability and quality of crisis care services as a result”
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