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Suicides (not) in the Media

Suicides (not) in the Media

I grew up with a mother who works in mental health. Obviously she was not allowed to reveal any stories about her patients, but she was able to infer some insight into the inner workings of these kinds of government departments, most of it indirectly. These offices are filled with people who really care — nurses, doctors, social workers. But the sad thing is that, over the course of 20 years, the majority of my life, I watched as her department was stripped of these good people, either by bureaucracy or funding cuts (or, more often, some hybrid of both).

Having spent the last five years of my adult life working as a journalist, I was recently caught unaware by the long-known (and unspoken) rule of not reporting on suicides. (And when I polled a good number of my colleagues, they were unaware of this, too.)

I did a bit of research, and suicide is generally something that is reported only if it is a celebrity or a murder-suicide. The reasoning is to prevent what I’m going to call “copy-cat suicide,” though that’s not the official term. In other words, people who may be thinking about it and then actually go through with it because of someone they know or something they’ve read. (I am including links at the bottom of this, so you can read more about it.)

I admit, that in itself is a good reason not to report it. And apparently there are collective rules that are to be followed about what to say and what not to say if you are going to actually report it, with the idea being to minimize this copy-cat effect — you aren’t going to say things that you generally are able to with other kinds of death. For instance, one of the recommendations is: “News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g. public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person’s death.”

OK, that makes sense.

Also this: “Empathy for family and friends often leads to a focus on reporting the positive aspects of a suicide completer’s life. For example, friends or teachers may be quoted as saying the deceased person ‘was a great kid’ or ‘had a bright future,’ and they avoid mentioning the troubles and problems that the deceased person experienced. As a result, statements venerating the deceased person are often reported in the news. However, if the suicide completer’s problems are not acknowledged in the presence of these laudatory statements, suicidal behavior may appear attractive to other at-risk persons — especially those who rarely receive positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors.” Again, these suggestions seem to make sense as to why journalists don’t report suicides at all or why we do very carefully, if we do.

However, the world is changing.

It used to be that people got all their news from the newspaper or the radio or the TV. But now, people are getting news via the internet. And even faster than the general web pages are social media platforms like Facebook.

Just today, I found out on Facebook that a childhood friend committed suicide yesterday, and people were posting within hours of it happening. And many of them, in their grief, are posting like they would if it were any other kind of death. Saying things that would fall into the above categories of “public community expressions of grief” or “statements venerating the deceased person… without acknowledging problems.”

I’m not *at all* saying that we need to censor these people’s grief. What I am saying is that we need to learn to talk about suicide collectively — and we need our journalists to lead the way. To come out of the shadows of not reporting on suicide and mental health itself, not to mention the ways in which major funding cuts and bureaucracy are gutting the very programs and professionals who are trained to help at-risk persons, perhaps before it even gets to that level.

I truly believe that education and open communication are the means to a more just world, and this mindset works in this scenario, too. For instance, did you know that suicide claims more U.S. lives than car accidents? Did you know that U.S. suicide rates for the general public haven’t changed much since the 1960s? Did you know that men are about 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide than women? Did you know that veterans are twice as likely as civilians? Did you know that in 2009 and 2010, more U.S. soldiers killed themselves than died in combat? Did you know that attempted suicide rates for U.S. LGBTQ youth and adults are 3 times higher than national averages?

“… I wonder if, in our attempt to protect those at higher risk of suicide, we do a disservice to the wider community in making it seem that suicides are not common… The media, for better or worse, are the glasses through which we understand what happens around us and what it means. If we continue to pretend suicides don’t happen as frequently as they do, then how can we blame governments for underfunding research and services for people with mental illness? Worse, the stigma will live on and be reinforced…We keep things on the hush-hush when we’re embarrassed about them. Mental illness should not be one of those things.”
It’s Time the Media Starts Reporting Suicides

“If done responsibly, media reports on suicide can help to remove the stigma of depression, lead people to vital mental health resources and, perhaps, save lives.”
Reporting Suicide & Finding A Balance

For those interested in general suicide-reporting rules and language to use/not use, check out this article and this article.

-Aubrey

If you or someone you know needs help, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information, and local resources. A local option in Northern Michigan is Third Level Crisis Center, which, among other resources, has a 24-hour hotline number at 231-922-4800 or 800-442-7315 — they also respond to text messages at 231-480-0292, Monday through Friday, between 4pm and 8pm, excluding holidays.

4 Comments

  1. Lou Gamalski

    Hey Aub: thank you for this interesting, informative, and insightful article. I couldn’t agree more that behavioral health issues deserve more resources than they are currently receiving–this has been an ongoing source of real frustration for those of us on the front lines of lives on the edge… The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the federal agency charged with research, education, and funding–and they’ve been really trying to chart a new course to end stigma. But it’s a slow process… I love their current logo, though, and thought I would share it with you, because it’s one I truly support: “BEHAVIORAL HEALTH IS ESSENTIAL TO HEALTH. PREVENTION WORKS. TREATMENT WORKS. PEOPLE RECOVER.” I’m proud of the work you do, Aubrey! You make a difference!

  2. Lou Gamalski

    Oops! I blew it! That SAMHSA logo/mission statement should read: “BEHAVIORAL HEALTH IS ESSENTIAL TO HEALTH. PREVENTION WORKS. TREATMENT IS EFFECTIVE. PEOPLE RECOVER.

  3. Lou Gamalski

    P.S. And I’m soo sorry for the loss of your friend, dear one! May God above embrace his/her soul, and grant comfort and peace to those left behind!

  4. Aubrey Ann Parker

    Lou, thanks so much for the kind words. And thanks for the perspective and the info; it’s very useful! I’ve been blessed to have such an insider’s perspective into the mental health world from my mom and from friends like you.

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