Professor Jane Pirkis’ work in suicide prevention has been recognised by the University of Tasmania. (ABC News: Carla Howarth)
The media’s reporting of suicide has improved in recent years thanks in part to a world-renowned suicide prevention researcher from Tasmania.
The work of Professor Jane Pirkis has informed Australian and international media guidelines on safer ways to present suicide-related stories.
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In recognition of her achievements, the former University of Tasmania student has received the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award.
Professor Pirkis, who is currently the director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, returned to Tasmania to receive the award, which was presented at a gala dinner in Launceston last night.
“I’m honoured to get the award. It’s fantastic recognition,” she said.
“I have really fond memories of my time at the University of Tasmania and it was a great launching pad for my career.”
On the subject of her work, Professor Pirkis said irresponsible reporting on suicide could lead to imitative acts.
“Media reporting of suicide has changed a lot in the time that I’ve been working in the area,” she said.
“It’s definitely improved; so the media are much less likely to sensationalise or glorify suicide these days, and also much more likely to do things like provide information about where people might seek help.”
Room for improvement
Still, Professor Pirkis said there was room for improvement.
“One of the things maybe the media could do better is show positive stories of people having reached a point that was a crisis and then come through it — you know, mastering crises,” she said.
She said the stigma around mental health had lessened.
“There’s obviously great community concern about suicide by people who are cautious about talking about it, and people don’t know quite what to do about it,” she said.
“I think that suicide is a really important public health problem and it is largely preventable, so that’s why I’m interested and that’s what keeps me in.”
According to Lifeline, the overall suicide rate in 2015 was 12.6 per 100,000 in Australia, which was the highest rate in more than 10 years.
Professor Pirkis, in partnership with the Movember Foundation and Heiress Films, created the documentary series Man Up, which screened on the ABC in 2016.
“We created this three-part documentary that was about the relationship between traditional masculinity — you know, that stoic male trait of not wanting to reach out if times are tough — and suicide,” she said.
She said the documentary reached millions of people.
“We did a trial of it before it went to air and in the participants in the trial it made a difference to their likelihood to seeking help and also the way in which they viewed masculinity,” she said.
Media guidelines include:
- Consider whether to report on a suicide
- Minimise details about method
- Place story in context, ensure accuracy and balance
- Reduce prominence of story
- Consider language used