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What ESPN Got Wrong When Reporting About Madison Holleran

06/03/2015 02:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2015

Last month, ESPN shared the heartbreaking story of University of Pennsylvania student Madison Holleran. Holleran was a freshman and track athlete at the university who died by suicide -- and now, the world is hearing what happened.

Many people commented on how beautifully the 5,000-plus-word story was presented and written -- and indeed, the feature shows incredible attention to detail and involves masterful storytelling. It shines a light on mental illness, particularly proving that a person can be suffering on the inside while appearing fine on the outside. The piece also tackles stigma well, which the world needs more of, considering stigma is still a prevalent issue when it comes to mental health.

However, part of what makes the piece so compelling is a series of storytelling devices and disclosures that also make it, frankly, irresponsible. What most people don't realize is that ESPN's coverage of Holleran's death could potentially harm vulnerable individuals.

The National Institutes of Mental Health has specific guidelines the media is encouraged to follow when it comes to suicide reporting. This is to help reduce suicide contagion, or overexposure to suicidal behaviors that may influence others to attempt suicide.

A spokesperson for ESPN told The Huffington Post that the outlet follows the Associated Press guidelines for suicide reporting -- rules largely similar to NIMH standards -- with the understanding that there's room for exceptions in certain circumstances.

But simply put, by not following journalistic best practices when it comes to covering suicide, ESPN's story may do a disservice to those suffering from mental health issues. Here's how:

A suicide in and of itself should not be considered newsworthy.
ESPN undoubtedly meant well by diving into Holleran's story. She was a popular, smart, athletic girl who was dealing with mental health complications -- complications that the world should most certainly take seriously. However, because the 19-year-old was a member of the general population, her story should not have been covered so extensively.

The suicides of well-known public figures are an exception, as long as they follow best practices for reporting appropriately. The AP guidelines state, in part: "Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive."

While ESPN may view the suicide of a 19-year-old woman who is popular, smart, and talented as an unusual circumstance, in actuality, it is not. ESPN's spokesperson told HuffPost the company made an exception in the case of this particular story -- with permission from the Holleran family -- with the hope that the article would encourage an open conversation about mental health and stigma.

But it's not clear why ESPN covered Holleran's death in particular, and not everyone believes an exception was merited in this case.

Devoting so much editorial attention to one woman's suicide is incredibly problematic because it glamorizes her death, Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and a suicide prevention researcher, told HuffPost. Vulnerable individuals who identify with this young woman's story could potentially be swayed in such a way that they also see suicide as a way to stem their suffering.

Every media outlet has to make a judgment call about whether a suicide meets the threshold of an exception, and not everyone will agree with every decision. But even if one agrees that ESPN's intention justifies the exception in Holleran's case, the story still made another definite misstep.

Holleran's death was described in detail...
ESPN's story explicitly describes Holleran's suicide. The piece covers everything from her final moments before her death to how it happened, which goes against the AP's clear mandate for suicide coverage ("Suicide stories, when written, should not go into detail on methods used"). According to the research analyzed by the NIMH, the risk of suicide increases when the story describes the method used or employs dramatic imagery and headlines. In other words, vulnerable readers may see the content and use the detailed information almost like a set of "tips" for suicide.

"I was stunned by the level of detail the story provided about the suicide method," Gould said. "It could have easily been deleted without limiting the positives about the story. Those details could become a magnet for other vulnerable people."

... A problem because, copycat suicides do happen.
Copycat acts are a real threat. More than 50 studies worldwide found that in-depth reporting on suicide can "increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals," according to the NIMH.

The guidelines, including a caution about language glamorizing suicide, are in place for a reason. After Robin Williams died in August 2014, the conversation surrounding suicide became incredibly prevalent, particularly on social media. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences tweeted an image of Williams' iconic Genie character from the film "Aladdin" with the caption "Genie, you're free." While posted with good intentions, the tweet implied that those at risk can be "free" from their suffering through suicide. This is a dangerous idea to perpetuate.

So what does this mean?
ESPN's spokesperson noted that the story also included the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which follows the guidelines outlined by the NIMH. Gould champions this practice, but says media outlets can make a difference in plenty of other ways when it comes to reporting suicides.

"Survivors of a loved one's suicide often need to share the story for both the purpose of preventing this from happening to someone else and for trying to get a better understanding of what's so unimaginable," she said. "We're not telling people not to tell their story; we want people to be aware it's a public health problem. But there's a responsibility to provide warning signs and other resources. Maybe make the hotline number more prominent. If you're going to have a story that reports on suicide, you need to have these other messages as well."

The story of Madison Holleran could have been an excellent gateway into creating a conversation about suicide -- a conversation we desperately need to have in the media and beyond. Stigma is a real issue and one that prevents those who experience mental health issues from reaching out for help. But, in shedding light on this issue, the ESPN editorial team also had a responsibility to follow the guidelines that help prevent more tragedies from unfolding -- a responsibility we all share.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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If you have a story about living with mental illness that you'd like to share with HuffPost readers, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

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