Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing about suicide

More than four dozen people have leapt to their deaths since 1964 from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, California. Mental health advocates and law enforcement officials want to install a nine-and-a-half-foot safety rail to make suicide attempts more difficult. But nothing in America is simple, and preservationists and others oppose the barrier.

Noozhawk, Santa Barbara’s enterprising electronic journalism site, opens a four-day series on the issue today. William Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s publisher and a colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, has asked me to comment on the journalistic issues and standards involved in reporting on suicides and suicide attempts.

I am not an expert on the matter, but I am willing to write what I know and invite informed parties to comment.

(1) Suicide is a private matter — except

Ordinarily, a news publication treats suicides and suicide attempts as private matters, mental and emotional disorders being as inherently private as any other illness or disorder. Not our business.

But in news obituaries, as distinguished from paid obituaries in which the families include only the information they choose to disclose, the publication gives a cause of death. That is part of the news, even if the families and friends are reluctant.

When I started at The Flemingsburg Gazette forty-two years ago, no one died of cancer. Obituaries said that people died “after a long illness,” because having cancer was a stigma, a source of fear. Later, in the 1980s, deaths from AIDS-related illnesses carried a similar stigma. And mental and emotional disorders continue to be things people prefer not to speak about. Journalism, by reporting with common sense and restraint about stigmatized things, airs them for public discussion and understanding.

(2) Suicide is not to be sensationalized

When a person commits suicide publicly, it can no longer be considered a private matter. But common sense and restraint are still necessary.

It is commonly understood now, for example, that a suicide by a teenager can touch off a cluster of similar attempts among other adolescents undergoing emotional upheavals. In these cases in particular, it is important for articles to be factual and dispassionate to avoid stimulating imitations.

Mr. Macfadyen tells me that some media outlets writing about the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge have used headlines or labels including “Bridge of Despair” and “Leap of Faith.” You can publish just about anything in America, but this is cheap and distasteful. Anything that serves to romanticize or dramatize suicide could have the effect of encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to see it as a glamorous act.

(3) A personal note

My son, J.P., fell into a profound depression in college and attempted suicide. It scared the hell out of my wife and me, and we did our best to get him help. He withdrew from college and came home. We found an incomparable therapist in Dr. Roger Harris (previous therapists not having connected effectively with J.P.), who, combining drug therapy and talk therapy, brought J.P. through.

J.P. returned to St. John’s College and graduated a year ago. He has also graduated from therapy and has been off antidepressants for several months. He is alive, and he has a life ahead of him.

I asked him this morning whether he would object to my writing about him in this post, and he encouraged me to do so. Depression is terribly isolating, he said, and the stigma about mental illness reinforces the isolation. The more people can talk openly and factually about it, he said, the better off everyone will be.

(4) Over to you

I encourage you to read the Noozhawk series, which raises issues with an impact well beyond Santa Barbara, and I invite you to comment here on suicide and journalistic standards and practices.