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Juliana Francis

Nigerian media professionals were recently equipped with new skill sets on how to report issues relating to trauma, and suicide without glamourising it, causing others to want to copycat or revictimising survivors.

The unique workshop and training was held at Msquare Hotel, Ikeja GRA, Lagos, between November 30th to December 2nd 2023. It was a unique training in that, not many journalists have been beneficiaries of such a training and workshop.

The workshop and training were organised by Idimma Health Initiative and Child Solidarity Group and the US Consulate General, Lagos State, supported it.DSC_9348 DSC_9350 DSC_9413 DSC_9447

According to experts, approximately 700,000 people commit suicide annually.

The Founder of Idimma Health Initiative, Aisha Bubah, said the training was also aimed at promoting wholesome wellness.

According to her, everyone has mental health, so saying that people have mental health is not an insult as most people used to think. Mental illness is a negative of mental health, she stated.

Facilitating the session on Understanding Mental Health, Bubah explained that there is a difference between mental health and mental disorders.

She said that mental health is the wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life and can work productively and fruitfully.

She added: “Mental illness is recurring, and it can affect someone’s functioning and it has depth. Some people have a history of mental illness in their families and medication can regulate mental illness, and life stresses can trigger it. Some drugs affect and can cause depression. When people suffer depression and anxieties, they cannot be productive.”

She added: “Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 264 million people. The global prevalence of anxiety disorders is estimated to be around 3.6% and 30% of Nigerians suffer mental illness, while 22% of Nigerians suffer from chronic depression and 1in 5 Nigerian youth have mental health problems.

“Suicide and substance misuse are on the increase. Only about 4% of the country’s health budget goes to mental health.  Nine out of 10 persons with mental disorders in Nigeria do not receive any services. Over 30% of Nigerians suffer from depression according to WHO and only about 10% have access to treatment.”

A Psychologist, Ms Chineze Okafor facilitating the session on Introduction to Suicide, said that warning signs of suicide include verbal and thought clues, preoccupation with death, expressing a desire to die, talking about hopelessness, behavioural changes, withdrawal from activities, sudden recklessness, overwhelming guilt or shame, among others.

She advised that all signs of suicide should be taken seriously.

Diving into the major point of the workshop and training, Okafor explained that Safe reporting refers to the ethical and responsible coverage of sensitive topics such as suicide, violence, mental health, and other potentially distressing issues.

She added: “In the context of suicide reporting, safe reporting involves following guidelines and best practices to minimise the risk of causing harm, including the potential for contributing to suicide contagion or promoting harmful behaviour.”

She enumerated safe reporting of suicide principles and practices as minimising graphic details, promoting help-seeking, sensitive language and framing, considering vulnerable audiences, educating and informing.

Safe reporting of suicide also involves several key principles and practices, including collaboration with experts and highlighting stories of recovery and hope, said Okafor.

She said that bad reporting techniques could have detrimental effects on individuals and communities.

She noted that types of bad reporting techniques related to suicide, mental health and trauma are sensationalising suicide, mental health issues, or trauma. This can happen when the media focuses excessively on dramatic or graphic details, stated Okafor.DSC_9528 DSC_951111111 GIBLERT TRAINEES

“This approach can lead to desensitisation among audiences and may inadvertently glamorise or trivialise serious issues, potentially contributing to harmful outcomes.

“The use of stigmatising or inaccurate language when discussing suicide, mental health, or trauma can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. Misrepresenting these topics can contribute to the marginalisation of affected individuals and hinder efforts to promote understanding and support.”

She also maintained that reporting that failed to provide context or resources related to mental health, trauma, or suicide can leave audiences uninformed and ill-equipped to understand and respond to these issues.

She mentioned that omitting information about available support services and resources may create a sense of hopelessness and isolation for those in need.

Her words: “Over-identification with the individual who died by suicide or romanticising their story can lead to an increased risk of suicide contagion. Highlighting the individual’s details without an understanding of the risks of suicide contagion can be harmful to vulnerable audiences. Blaming individuals or oversimplifying the complex factors contributing to suicide, mental health struggles, or trauma can perpetuate damaging narratives, among others.”

Journalists were also told to understand that interviewing survivors of suicide attempts requires a careful and sensitive approach.

Okafor stressed that survivors of suicide attempts may be in a vulnerable emotional state, and the interview process should prioritise their well-being and comfort.

She noted: “Approach the interview with sensitivity and empathy and be prepared to adapt your approach based on the survivor’s needs and responses.

“Interviewing suicide survivors, families and loved ones of a person who has died by suicide. When interviewing the families and loved ones of a person who has died by suicide, journalists must approach the process with the utmost sensitivity and empathy. It’s crucial to prioritise the well-being of the bereaved individuals while also aiming to tell the story respectfully and accurately.”

She also explained that reporting suicide news is a deeply distressing and complex issue, which calls for a compassionate approach.

She noted: “While the present law in Nigeria does not endorse this perspective by criminalising attempted suicide, media professionals should approach this sensitive subject with caution while reporting responsibly and empathetically on it.”

Okafor explained guidelines for responsible reporting are to prioritise privacy and confidentiality, which will help create an environment where those affected by suicide are not subjected to unnecessary harm or distress from the public knowledge of their situations. She also stated: “Also with the legal implications of attempted suicide, it is important to avoid sharing any information that could potentially contribute to stigmatising an individual’s actions.

“Respect people’s privacy by refraining from sharing their personal information or identifiers, particularly for those who are not public figures, exercise caution when speaking with grieving families or friends to ensure their privacies and emotional well-being are respected.

“Do not include specific details on memorials or funerals in reports. Sensationalised and explicitly detailed stories can lead to copycat behaviours where vulnerable individuals may imitate the suicidal behaviour.”

She also spoke against attention-grabbing stories, stressing that they could perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide by contributing to misconceptions, fear, and a lack of understanding.

This was also as she cautioned journalists to be hyper-careful in how they described stories of celebrity suicides.

She further cautioned journalists from prominently featuring and needlessly reiterating stories about suicide.

According to her, media professionals may be impacted by these stories and should take necessary steps to provide support and self-care for journalists covering such sensitive topics

She said: “Include an advisory message before the story starts. when published or broadcasted. Be cautious in explicitly detailing to avoid copycat behaviour, especially by younger people who are impressionable and heavily impacted by the media, and who are more likely to model the behaviour if the story is about someone with similar demographics or is a celebrity or idol.

“Drawing attention to the specific details can also take away from the message of how tragic the suicide is by focusing on the steps. Do not include information on the location or site. Do not provide explicit details about the method used. Avoid the inclusion of visuals, such as photos or videos of the incident.

“If a suicide note was left, do not provide details on what was said in it. because this provides individuals who may be struggling with their mental health or have been affected by suicide with an avenue to seek help while encouraging them to reach out for assistance.

“By doing this, you would be engaging in responsible reporting that not only raises awareness about the issue but also gives people hope. Include information on where individuals can seek help for mental health and access to supportive services.

“Inform readers on the realities of suicide and suicide prevention. Don’t only report on suicides, but also report on stories about coping with stress and suicidal thoughts. Report on stories that showcase resilience. Consult with mental health professionals and people with lived experiences on the issue.

“Provide resources for the relations, friends, and colleagues of the bereaved. Do not report on stories in a way that shames individuals for committing suicide.”

Speaking on Ethical Considerations Language When Reporting Suicide, Okafor noted: “Be careful with your word choice when describing suicide. Use person-centred language that avoids dehumanising or stigmatising labels, such as ‘individual who died by suicide” instead of “suicide victim”.

“Due to the sensitivity of this topic, get approval from the people impacted by the suicide before reporting on it. If a story posted leads to subsequent self-harm or distress to a family, take ownership and assume responsibility for the unintended harm. Do not report on stories in a way that shames individuals for committing suicide.”

She also urged journalists who report suicide to embark on self to avoid secondary trauma.

She explained that secondary trauma, also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, “is the emotional and psychological stress that can result from witnessing or hearing about the traumatic experiences of others. While primary trauma involves direct exposure to a traumatic event, secondary trauma occurs when individuals are indirectly impacted by the trauma of others, such as in professions where individuals regularly encounter trauma survivors.”

Okafor stated that signs and symptoms of secondary trauma are “Intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic experiences of others may manifest, causing distress and preoccupation with the suffering and pain of those they have encountered in their professional roles.

“Some individuals may develop a sense of emotional numbness or detachment as a coping mechanism to protect themselves from the intense emotional impact of the stories and experiences they have encountered. “Secondary trauma can lead to increased irritability and heightened emotional reactivity, making it challenging for individuals to manage their emotions in their personal and professional lives. Secondary trauma can contribute to a sense of disillusionment or loss of purpose, leading individuals to question the value or impact of their work.”

The Psychologist advocated for journalists covering issues relating to suicide and trauma to embark on self-care by learning to prioritise their mental health amid their busy schedules.

She stated: “Self-care is crucial in this situation in the context of mental health, self-care involves developing mental management skills, asking for assistance when necessary, engaging their brains, and establishing firm boundaries. Self-care aims at promoting the overall mental health and wellbeing of professionals.”

Giving mental self-care tips for media professionals, Okafor urged journalists to maintain a work-life balance and find ways to de-stress on busy days. “This could involve listening to music, or podcasts, reading novels or even watching movies. They should ensure that they obtain sufficient sleep, both in terms of quality and quantity, aiming for six to eight hours of uninterrupted rest.”

The Chief Executive Officer of Child Solidarity Group, Emediong Akpabio urged the trainees to transfer their knowledge to their colleagues in their various media organizations as it will increase safe reporting for a better society.

The Spokesperson for the US Mission in Nigeria, Gilbert Morton commended the organisers, said: “I appreciate Idimma and the entire team. It is important to see how our programme comes to play. You’re building media capacity and improving their skill sets on some of the difficult topics of Gender-based Violence and suicide. Three days is a lot of time, but it is a time well spent.”

He further stated: “We have a strong interest in deepening training and seeing how trauma is reported. These are very hard topics. We should think about the way we present these topics. These are psychological issues difficult to present.

“When reporting, consider the well-being of the survivors and how to phrase language. Play this role well and tell these stories, so that people will not forget these stories. Tell the stories in the best way possible.”

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