A television video camera sits on a table
(Pexels/ Knelstrom)

As with current media guidelines for reporting on suicide, new guidelines have been developed by a team including a University of Guelph researcher for reporting of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).

Along with other researchers, Prof. Stephen Lewis, Department of Psychology, has helped develop the first-ever research-informed, consensus-based guideline for responsible reporting and depiction of NSSI. NSSI is the purposeful damage of one’s body tissue without suicidal intent such as cutting, burning, hitting or severe scratching.

“Currently, media coverage of non-suicidal self-injury ranges from displaying graphic images and sensationalistic headlines on one end to providing helpful education and supportive information on the other,” said Lewis. “There are no rules for media to follow and depending on how NSSI is depicted by media, it can either trigger and stigmatize people with lived experience of self-injury or in other cases, it can help people by making them feel less alone and more understood.”

Lewis is past president of the International Society for Study of Self-Injury, which developed this first-ever set of guidelines. The group comprises leading researchers and clinicians in the field as well as individuals with lived NSSI experience.

Published recently in the The British Journal of Psychiatry, the guidelines provide information on responsible reporting and depiction of NSSI in media as well as advice and ideas for dissemination and collaboration between media professionals and health-care experts.

Prof. Stephen Lewis

To develop the guidelines, the team reviewed research on how media portrayals of NSSI may perpetuate stigma, limit efforts to seek help and lead to increases in urges and behaviour.

“For example, some of our team’s own research has suggested that graphic photographs portraying NSSI may be upsetting and provoke urges to self-injure among some individuals,” Lewis. “Because of this, we recommend avoiding using these images in any media report.”

The team also reviewed media guidelines for reporting on suicide and consulted with clinicians and NSSI and suicide prevention researchers and journalists.

The guidelines offer six recommendations:

  1. Avoid use of NSSI-related images and details within text, especially of wounds and methods/tools.
  2. Highlight efforts to seek treatment, stories of recovery, adaptive coping strategies as alternatives to NSSI, and updated treatment and crisis resources.
  3. Avoid misinformation about NSSI by communicating peer-reviewed and empirically supported material, including distinguishing NSSI from suicide.
  4. Present information neutrally; avoid exaggerated descriptions of NSSI prevalence and sensational headlines that include NSSI, especially the particular method.
  5. Use non-stigmatizing language and avoid terms that conflate person and behaviour, e.g. “”cutter”)
  6. Ensure that online article comments are responsibly moderated.

The team also developed guidelines for social media platforms that include posting rules and response guidelines for users and establishing meaningful consequences for repeat offenders.

“It is our hope that by adhering to these guidelines, we can work toward mitigating the risks associated with certain portrayals of self-injury in the media and ultimately develop a more compassionate understanding about people with lived experience of self-injury, who too often feel marginalized and alone. To this end, we have an opportunity to help combat stigma and misunderstanding, while instilling hope and communicating that recovery is possible.”


Prof. Stephen Lewis