“Ask if they’re thinking about suicide”

Suicide is an important but tricky item to cover. Journalists have to be aware of the negative effect it can have on people listening and take various measures to ensure they mitigate it and help, all while telling the truth.

After a number of students had taken their own life at some universities, including 13 in just over 18 months at Bristol University, the university created a new scheme for supporting students with their mental health needs. I successfully pitched an item on Woman’s Hour for BBC Radio 4 to investigate the worrying numbers, the warning signs, and what parents can do.

As a broadcast journalist, I’ve covered death and suicide too often and so I am well aware of the need to talk about them responsibly and sensitively. There’s specific guidance from the regulator, Ofcom on covering the topic in the UK so after a conversation with my Editor, we agreed the key things I needed to be aware of to address the topic carefully so as not to risk others. After a long phone conversation with a mother who had lost her son to suicide in which she and I talked about how it would sound on-air, she was willing to come into the studio to talk about her experiences. We pre-recorded the interview because I wanted to make sure she was okay and we could stop if we needed to. I believed this would be easier for the guest and give everyone involved the chance to breathe during the interview. To help with advice for anyone affected by the topic, I also booked a leader of a charity involved with counselling and student suicide and placed key contact details on the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour page.

The resulting item was powerful, sensitive and importantly, useful: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09rwtbz (at the start of the programme)

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