Coverage of high-profile deaths such as Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis often falls short – we can and must do better, says psychologist Rory O’Connor
22 March 2019
The apparent suicide last week of Mike Thalassitis, a former contestant on the UK reality TV show Love Island, has once again thrust into the spotlight what we can do to protect vulnerable individuals.
Any such death is one too many. It is encouraging to see ITV, Love Island’s broadcaster, committing itself to providing access to psychological support before, during and after contestants appear on the show. Other broadcasters and production companies must make the same commitments. I also welcome UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s intervention, highlighting that reality TV shows have a duty of care for contestants.
As someone who has been researching suicide for more than 20 years, the stark reality is that although we have made significant advances in understanding suicide, our ability to predict it is no better than chance. In part, this is because suicide is statistically a rare event. In the UK, for example, of every 100,000 people, 10 will die by their own hand in a given year. The difficulty is in trying to identify those people, but also identify when they are suicidal. The near-impossibility of this task is why keeping people safe, and mitigating suicide risk when people are vulnerable, is vital.
This means a duty of care not just for producers of reality TV shows, but the wider news media. We know that coverage of high-profile suicides can increase the risk of suicidal behaviour. But too often, that coverage fails to highlight the complexity of the contributing factors. Suicide rarely has a single cause. It is generally the product of a complex set of circumstances, often beginning with early life trauma, later mental health problems, fear of failure and a belief that loved ones would be better off if they were dead.
When reporting such deaths, this complexity should be conveyed. In the UK, the charity Samaritans maintains guidelines on how to report celebrity suicides. The message is simple: avoid speculation about causes, don’t report explicit details about suicide methods and don’t offer simplistic explanations. Do offer messages of compassion, hope and recovery.
These guidelines should be adhered to. This isn’t about censorship, but about keeping people alive. Suicidal thoughts wax and wane, and despite the unbearable pain, things can and do get better. Every life matters: we must work together to ensure that we protect everyone who is vulnerable, whatever degree of fame they achieve in life.
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