Seeking Help: Positive Messaging in Youth Suicide Prevention Campaigns

Suicide PreventionThe age-old ‘barrier of shame’ that stigmatizes suicide has long prevented at-risk youth from reaching out for help. Clearly, breaking down this barrier is key to combating increasing global youth suicide rates, for which the causes range from mental illness to substance addiction to low self-esteem. As part of this effort, those tasked with public health campaigns for youth suicide prevention must avoid stereotyping or normalizing suicide in their messaging. Instead, they should focus on help-seeking: letting at-risk youth know that they are not alone, help is available and that it is not shameful to ask.

Points of Intervention

To increase public awareness about the warning signs of suicide, improve help-seeking and care resources and reduce stigma around youth suicide, public health programs use specific messaging to target a particular point in time for at-risk youth, classifying their campaigns as Upstream (preventive), Midstream (early detection and treatment) or Downstream (intervention for those who have previously attempted suicide).

But is the messaging working? Although solid metrics for youth suicide prevention campaigns are limited, there is evidence that integrating positive messaging such as help-seeking, and offering significant resources to educate at-risk youth as well as the general public is making a difference.

Reaching Out Online

For example, Australia’s successful Reach Out Web Campaign directly addressed suicide among youth entirely through the Internet. Reach Out Australia offered a large database of content and resources to at-risk youth, as well as a variety of tools and apps, such as SMS alerts, goal setting, gamification, a community forum, and emergency contacts in case of any suicide-related emergencies. As a result, 70% of visitors reported that the site was effective for seeking mental health information and 68% had a better understanding of the mental health experiences of others after using the site.1

A Holistic Approach

Given the target audience of youth at risk, using online resources is a popular strategy; however, offline options can also break down the barrier of shame. Take, for instance, the Alaskan Kake Culture Camp in the Tlingit village of Kake, Alaska. The camp teaches Native youth about cultural traditions such as food gathering and processing, instilling a sense of pride for their culture. Through this healing process and by openly addressing suicide, teens have become more resilient to suicidal thoughts. Successfully run for 27 years, Kake Culture Camp has had no suicide incidents since its inception, a dramatic change from 1980s, when the state led the nation in suicides.

Best Practices

Not only did these successful campaigns focus on help, care and education, their messaging supported established best practices for addressing youth suicide, including:

  • Normalizing Help-Seeking, not Suicide: Suggesting that suicide is a common event may associate it with being acceptable. Instead, effective campaign messaging should affirm that seeking help is normal, and show how suicide is in fact a rare choice among young people.
  • Presenting Risk Factors: Listing typical risk factors and warning flags can educate people to recognize suicidal signs in another person.
  • Using Appropriate Language: Avoiding terms such as ‘suicide epidemic’ - which normalizes suicide - and ‘committing suicide’ - which implies a criminal act - helps neutralize the tone of communications.

Want to effectively convey youth suicide prevention in your own campaign? We can help! Redbird has recently completed a youth mental health site for a client in New Zealand, complete with an avatar generator, forum, and online resources. Contact Redbird for more information.

1Metcalf & Stephens-Reicher