Suicide still sensitive for the media

Janet Brown

When Time magazine shows a woman breastfeeding a three-year-old on its front cover, you know we live in an age where most taboos are happily flung around in public. When people Tweet about everything from their choice of breakfast to their caesarean sections, you know that little is treated with delicacy anymore.

It seems strange then that something as commonplace as mental illness does not get the same kind of attention as it should.

Mental illnesses, and more specifically depression, are the epidemic of the Western world. One in every five women and one in every eight men will suffer from some form of depression during their lives. As depression often goes untreated, it is possible that these figures are much higher.

Even more worrying is the almost complete silence about depression’s most terrible consequence: suicide.

In Australia, young men are the most likely to commit suicide. In rural areas, their numbers are twice that of their city counterparts. Men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics listing suicide as the tenth leading cause of death in men. Someone attempts suicide every six hours. However, newspapers rarely give space to the reporting of suicides.

This is possibly the last taboo of our society, journalism as a whole and the last topic that we are willing to tread carefully around. In an industry that is often as delicate as a stampeding rhinoceros, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

“It is part of the media’s job to bring ideas to the public forum,” says Brian Woods, chief of staff at the Bathurst Western Advocate, “And in the past few years we have seen a change, people are more likely to talk about mental illness.”

But when asked about his paper’s policy on reporting suicide, Woods is blunt: “Don’t touch it.”

***

Mental health has long been an issue that people have avoided. In Medieval Europe, the Church refused to bury suicides in churchyards. Until 1824 in Britain, it was still customary to bury a person who had committed suicide at a crossroads with a stake through the body.

The Victorians were very uncomfortable with suicide, and it showed in their style of reporting. The idea of mental illness raised possibilities they were not prepared to discuss or evaluate, particularly when the suicide victim was found to be ‘sane.’ Unlike murder, which appealed to the Victorian sense of legal justice, suicide did not appear to make sense. Occasionally, a suicide was so public, shocking and gory that it would be treated with the same attention and sensationalism as a murder. Such was the case of Margaret Moyes in 1838, who committed a very public and grisly suicide at the London Monument.

The Victorian papers were not delicate. It was common for papers to outline every grisly detail of violent crime, and this suicide was public and shocking. Even the London Times was not above such tactics, although they tried to dance around it with medical terms:

Upon examination of the body, it was found that the spine was fractured as also the back of the cranium, but the features are in no way disfigured, save by the appearance of coagulated blood forced from the nostrils, eyes, and mouth by the sudden concussion; the left arm is severed just above the elbow, and is only retained in its place by the integuments and the sleeve of the dress. (LT, 12 Sep. 1839, p. 435, col. 4)

***

While the extremes of the Victorian era did not survive all the way into the twenty-first century, mental illness remained a stigma for years.

“We didn’t really report suicides,” says Margaret Van Heekeren, former journalist and now lecturer.

“In the middle of the eighties, there was still a real hangover from the time where mental health was something shameful and not talked about.”

In the past decade, there has been a greater willingness to talk about mental health. While there is still a hangover of shame for some people, there is also a greater understanding and support networks available. The Men’s Shed program is a wonderful example of a support network and mental health initiative that is dressed up in social and community events. The Movember Foundation is another.

By all accounts, the public is more accepting of depression and mental health. Newspapers will publish stories about mental health, with the numbers for Beyond Blue and Lifeline printed neatly in the corners. By all accounts, the public is willing to accept a dialogue about mental health. It is suicide itself that is left silent.

The fear of suicide reporting is the contagion effect. This theory is that, when a suicide is reported, people who are already suffering from depression may follow the example.

One of the most prominent examples came from Vienna in 1978. After the installation of an underground rail system, people began to commit suicide by train. The newspapers reported the incidences extensively, and authorities noticed an increase in suicides from the rail system. It was not until 1987 that guidelines were printed for the media, and the contagion effect was diminished by 80%.

There is enough evidence that the contagion effect is a reality. There is truth to the copycat theory. People will imitate the actions of others, horribly so.

There are ways to avoid copycats. There are ways to report a suicide correctly. Using proper and appropriate language can have an enormous impact on the way that the public reacts to a story. Emphasising the experience of the family left in the balance is another – depression has a way of hacking into a person’s self-worth until they are convinced that people will be fine without them. Reminding them of their family is a way to hold them here until they strengthen.

Avoiding overly strong or sensational language, avoiding the act of suicide in the headline and adding the number for a twenty-four helpline are also ways that the contagion effect can be ignored.

Last year, the Australian Press Council reviewed its guidelines for the reporting of suicides. They recommended reporting the issue with delicacy; the media should avoid “unnecessarily explicit headlines or images”, and use the phrase “took their life” or “died by suicide”, rather than use the criminally inclined ‘committed’. But one only has to look at the Labor Party’s calls for a media watchdog to release just how toothless the Press Council is.

Journalists can be a hard bunch, and Wood remains steadfast in his opinions, “Suicide is still a no-go area. Occasionally, if it was a prominent member of the community or a celebrity we might report it. But it would be something we’d discuss with the rest of the staff first.”

Van Heekeren, as a teacher of the next generation of journalists, is pragmatic. “I’d tell them [the students] to go with the house style of the publication they’re working on. Some places will be more conservative than others, and it’s something they’ll learn on the job. And there is still that fear of the copycat effect.”

 Research taken by the Media Monitoring Project in 2001 indicated that overall, the Australian media was quite responsible when it came to reporting suicides. Over half the news items reviewed were found to be of a better quality. The end report admitted that while there was room for improvement, the Australian media handle suicide reporting quite well.

Additionally, the government-sponsored organisation Response Ability carries a number of resources designed as a guide for journalists reporting suicide. The site carries teaching resources, presentations and reports on the effects of suicide reporting in Australia.

It makes little sense that with such resources at hand, and with the changes to key guidelines, suicide is still danced around, or avoided outright.

“Newspapers now will report a suicide, but they won’t necessarily make it as explicit,” says Van Heekeren, “They’ll just use the phrase “there were no suspicious circumstances”. I think the public are very aware as to what that actually means anyway. There is a media language that the public are aware of.”

In the meantime, if anyone is in need of help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Mensline on 1300 789 978, or visit www.beyondblue.org.au

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