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Suicide prevention: Choice of words used in reporting influences readers' perception of and value judgement about suicide

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(Vienna, 6 March 2018) The choice of word used to refer to suicide (in German either Selbstmord [literally: self murder] , Freitod [literally: voluntary death] or Suizid [suicide from Latin sui = of oneself + cidium = killing] has a decisive influence upon how readers perceive it and what judgements they make about it. This has now been confirmed by an empirical study conducted by Benedikt Till and Thomas Niederkrotenthaler (Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine at the Center for Public Health) from MedUni Vienna, together with colleagues from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich (LMU) and Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium. The study recently appeared in the specialist journal "Social Science & Medicine".

A total of 451 people took part in the study and were divided into three groups. They were asked to read several short newspaper reports about suicide, which only differed from each other in the choice of word used for suicide (i.e. "Suizid", "Selbstmord" or "Freitod"). Only one of these words was used consistently throughout each of the respective articles. The participants were then asked to summarise what they had read in their own words, to complete a text by filling in gaps that had been left and to answer a few questions about their own attitudes to suicide. "There is a very clear effect: for example, the participants used the word they had just read in the articles with above-average frequency," explain the study authors.

On top of this, the study indicates that the three different terms conjure up different intellectual associations for the readers. For example, the test subjects who had read the word "Freitod" exhibited greater understanding and "support" for suicide by people who were terminally ill. And this is precisely why the suicide experts disapprove of this term: "The term "Freitod" implies that people are making a voluntary and rational decision. However, research shows that people who are suicidal typically have a narrow view of themselves, their lives and the world around them – a sort of emotional tunnel vision. It is therefore extremely difficult to designate a decision as being "voluntary" and "rational".

An earlier publication found that German-speaking media most commonly use the term "Selbstmord", although the term "Suizid" is now used almost as frequently. However, the term "Freitod" is also regularly used in reporting. The term "Selbstmord" is not recommended, since it has criminal connotations. "Freitod" is problematic, because of the associations with a voluntary, rational decision. It is recommended that the neutral term "Suizid" be used in German for suicide reporting.

"Our recent study highlights the important role that media can play in suicide prevention. Responsible reporting should always seek to use the most neutral possible wording," say the researchers. However, the choice of words is only "one element of responsible suicide reporting," which "empirical research, especially in Austria, has shown to prevent suicide".

The researchers at MedUni Vienna and the Vienna Crisis Intervention Centre, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), have developed media guidelines for comprehensive and responsible suicide reporting:

WHO media recommendations for suicide prevention

You can find information about suicide prevention and support agencies throughout Austria at:

Service: Social Science & Medicine
Florian Arendt, Sebastian Scherr, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, Benedikt Till: The role of language in suicide reporting: Investigating the influence of problematic suicide referents. In: Social Science & Medicine 2018.