Ethical Behaviour in Suicide Prevention Leadership

Posted on 9 October 2021
By Carmen Betterridge, Suicide Risk Assessment Australia

Politics often reflect motivations for money and power. Big voices, 'assertive' positions and sometimes leaders not playing by the rules. In suicide prevention, we see the push for bipartisan support for many initiatives considered essential in advancing the cause. This is brilliant and a reflection of people working for the good of humanity. Despite identified support from all areas of government and increased funding and capacity building across the sector, there are suicide prevention organisations and leaders, that fail to show leadership and commitment to established standards for safe communication about suicide.

Safe images and language when communicating about suicide

We need to be mindful of our audience when talking about suicide. It is not a case of 'one size fits all'. There are contexts in which it is inherently likely that a person will be exposed to images depicting suicide that are graphic, distressing and/or disturbing, yet necessary. These contexts can include investigations, clinical and forensic training and research/ publications about suicide. There are times when it is not only unnecessary but potentially harmful. Research has time and time again demonstrated the importance of safe communication standards in public forums (Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2020; Gunnell & Biddle, 2020; Williams & Witte, 2018). National guidelines have been available for many years now in Australia, supporting safe media reporting and public discussions around suicide. There is also a National Communications Charter.

With announcements of government funding, service expansions and political investment in the prevention of suicide, some leaders have overstepped the boundaries for safe communication. The following are three examples:

  • A leading workplace mental health provider using images depicting suicide methods, in conference presentation materials.
  • A CEO of a national advocacy group, discussing suicide in glorified and sensationalist manner to the media.
  • A celebrity suicide prevention advocate and charity founder, arguing that "more people are dying of suicide than Covid in Australia". There is no evidence to support this claim, which is made for sensationalist effect.


The key concerns are

  • These behaviours are inconsistent with known and well established national standards.
  • These behaviours are inconsistent with strong, ethical leadership in suicide prevention.
  • Concerns raised directly with these individuals regarding the potential harms, appear to have no observable impact.
  • The general public doesn't know where the harms lay, therefore the sector and leaders specifically have an increased responsibility to act with integrity.
  • Leaders are expected to lead by example. 


What can you do?

Become familiar with the current standards in communicating safely about suicide, if you aren't already (see everymind and Mindframe Media to better understand what is expected when communicating safely about suicide).

When you hear gross inequality in the standards set by leaders and their behaviour, please, call it out. Write a letter, send an email, talk with another professional about the action you can take. We simply cannot allow those in power to breach the standards defined by research, for their own personal, political or financial gain.

We also encourage all professionals to return to their core values, underpinning their work in suicide prevention, which should be to protect and serve the people we care about.

  • Why are you involved?
  • What would you like to achieve?
  • How can you work together with other professionals to promote excellence in suicide prevention?

We all strive to be better at what we do. We can all learn from each other if we listen to each other.

Find out more about Suicide Risk Assessment Australia.