Let's reopen an old wound. Why don't news organizations report suicides and when they do report suicides, how do they decide which ones are worthy?
The question resurfaces after last week's coverage (including on NewsCut) of the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodermeyer, who took his own life, apparently after being bullied in his first weeks of high school.
Suicide, as I've written here plenty of times, is an epidemic, yet we don't connect the dots with only occasional coverage of a suicide here or there -- the slumber party that ended in a suicide pact in Marshall, the suicide in New London that got coverage because a father spoke out about it and because it was the second one in town, or the suicide that is news because of the murder that preceded it.
In Minnesota, the latest statistics say, suicide dropped by 17 from 2008 to 2009. Someone took their own life every 38 hours in the state instead of every 39 hours.
While 15-24 year olds accounted for the most suicides by age group (82), it was only one more than the 50-54 year old age group. But suicides of people in their 50s accounted for 1 of every four suicides.
Today, columnist Tina Dupuy says it's time for a different approach to covering this:
I don't know how to eradicate bullying. I don't know if we need more people in jail in this country, especially teenagers like those who bullied Jamey. I don't know how to make kids nicer to each other. I don't know how to make being a teenager less painful.
I do know that suicide needs to be taken out of the closet. The idea that if we talk about suicide - if we read about it in the paper - it'll be so tempting more people will kill themselves is ridiculous. It reeks of superstition. Censoring stories doesn't save lives.
Eighteen U.S. military veterans a day kill themselves. It's a kind of Don't Ask, Don't Tell that's still being implemented. Over 6,500 vets a year die this way. That's more soldiers dying at home in one year than in 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And among those currently serving, in 2010 suicide took more lives of our military personnel than battle. The problem is so prevalent Obama is the first President in history to send letters of condolences to military families of troops who committed suicide.
Suicides for Native American males ages 10-24 are almost three times the national average. Also, Alaska has the most suicides per capita. In case you think it's from lack of sunlight, New Mexico ranks number two. The vast majority of suicides are gun deaths.
Dupuy figures the suicide rate in America is probably rising. She speculates that as mental health services are cut, the number will rise. We'll see. It may not be an important issue outside of the circle of people and families who needed mental health services and the occasional police officer who has to live with killing one who didn't get them.
"Someone took their own life every 38 hours in the state instead of every 39 hours."
I think the non-reporting of suicides is because it is deemed a "personal" event, not because it isn't news worthy. At least, that's what I have been told by reporters in the past.
My belief is that it makes people uncomfortable, and makes people turn away, which is the exact opposite of what money making news agencies want people to do. Why report on something and bring it to light, potentially helping to solve the problem... you know, doing the job of the media, when you can show an extra thirty seconds of ducks doing something cute at the park?
Suicide by cop is a pretty easy way to do it. Particularly if you're fortunate enough to draw a cop who has been found guilty of tazing a woman at a traffic stop. As she sat in the passenger seat. Because she didn't hang up her phone fast enough.
There is a lot of research showing that "suicide contagion" is real. There are ways the media can cover suicide in a helpful way, and ways that make contagion more likely (e.g., Link ). To call it "superstition" is simply untrue and ignores the facts.
When I did this interview with an area expert on the subject last year, I recall 1% being used as the figure for the number of "copycat" suicides.
That number alone doesn't tell us much unless we can calculate whether better coverage of suicide as an issue can result in a drop in the number of suicides because we've haven't made it easier for people to pretend there really isn't a problem that needs addressing.
I don't have that data, obviously.
While the link provided by SLB seems to be the way that most news organization are dealing with suicides, I wonder if a limit to the benefits of this type of coverage has been reached.
Most people have at least heard of signs to watch for, but I don't think the general populous is getting any better at intervention to help.
Isn't it maybe possible that a suicide prevention program that brings the issue to light may help to reach more people. (Not that it's the same, but the "It gets better" GLBT program seems to started to take this much more open stance.)
This article is missing a very important suicide mention. The number of students in the Anoka/Hennepin School District who committed suicide after they were severely bullied because of being LGBT or perceived LGBT.
Therefore the statistical number does not reflect an accurate number up or down.
Bob, you didn't write in the article what the number of suicides in Minnesota was last year. It's buried in that report, I guess, but did you not want to report it or something?
581, down 17. But that's for 2009, the latest year for which the state has data.
I would like to see more honest discussion of suicide and mental health in general in our society. Contributing interwoven factors to suicide such as cuts to social programs, cuts to education (often the only "safety net" for kids who are struggling), abuse, poverty, access to health care, etc. make it a large and important topic. Perhaps honest media coverage would help survivors left behind by the person who died to feel less shame and would remove the social stigma around mental health. Increased public understanding could take the onus of education off of the surviving family members. Well-meaning people unintentionally say naïve and ignorant things that really hurt, and it puts the burden of the experience, the memories, educating people, and learning to cope on squarely on the shoulders of the survivor.
It has been hard for me to be open about the fact that my dad committed suicide because I am afraid of people judging me or assuming I am "crazy." Having it in the obituary section of the paper would have made it easier for me personally, because it would no longer be a big secret. I can't talk about the complexities of how I feel about Dad without having to explain his death, his life, or our relationship over and over again. The lesson I took as a kid from both his death certificate and his obituary was that “we don’t talk about suicide.”
I completely agree with you Christin about the need to have a more honest and open discussion about mental health. As you well know, it is an untidy subject in many families and mine is no exception. It is the subject that politicians from both sides equate to radioactivity and keep hoping the issues will just go away.
Many years ago, we lost an infant to SIDS. It is hard enough to lose a child, but it is even worse to have to deal with a social worker who made an inspection of our house and of our (then) toddler daughter. To say it was stressful was an understatement.
It took some years and the guts to finally talk with someone, but I was eventually diagnosed with depression. While I never came close to suicide, something went off in the back of my mind that said "you need help."
I'm not sure one ever gets "better" in the case of mental health. It's not a wart that can be removed or an infection that can be eliminated with antibiotics. It's there and I suspect will always be there in my case. Its a case of understanding and balancing the need to move forward without forgetting. And yes, some days it is easier said than done.