People in our region react a variety of ways when they learn someone died by suicide.
Some want to hide that fact, mourning privately and not telling anyone what happened or why.
Others want to mourn in public, drawing attention to the circumstances leading someone to take his own life.
For the newspaper’s part, The Lima News carefully tries to walk through that maze created by a suicide. New recommendations from the American Society of Suicidology, “Suicide Reporting Recommendations,” show we’ve been on the right track.
An interesting portion of this document talks about “limiting suicide contagion.” The idea is sometimes when someone with mental illness — and make no bones about it, the decision that it’s better to die than live is a sign of mental illness — dies, people publicly mourn that person, perhaps more than they would with a traffic accident or childhood illness leading to death. They hope by shining a light on that person’s death, it will save another child’s life.
Unfortunately, it might have the opposite effect.
“Research suggests that certain ways of reporting on suicide can contribute to imitative suicides or suicide clusters,” according to the guidelines. “Contagion effects are likely to occur when someone perceives increased benefit of suicide after being exposed to suicidal behavior of others directly or through media coverage.”
Our internal policy is we generally don’t report on suicide deaths unless they involve public figures or happen in plain sight. For years, we’ve been acutely aware that someone who doesn’t value his own life might see some value in being eulogized publicly after suicide, and we want to limit that thought from crossing his mind.
Thus, we don’t write news stories on most suicide deaths. We tend to report on them as a group: There were 13,000 calls in 2017 to the local crisis HOPEline (800-567-4673) . There were 32 suicide deaths in Allen, Auglaize, Putnam and Van Wert counties for people ranging in age from 13 to 25 between 2012 and July 31, 2017.
It’s a public health crisis. It’s a mental health crisis. And as a responsible media member, I try not to cause more contagion. I urge well-meaning people on social media to similarly be careful about what they share and how they respond to a particular death, knowing that someone else with the false notion no one cares about them in life might see that feedback as a reason to end another life prematurely.
The document has other helpful advice we’re trying to encourage in our newsroom. “Commit suicide” has a negative, almost criminal, connotation. Certainly no one “commits cancer” when dying that way. Frankly, I’m struggling to write this column without that term, but I’ll make a cognizant effort to avoid it in the future.
Similarly, it’s dangerous to oversimplify why someone makes the choices they do. Responsible media shouldn’t try to tie someone’s death to a particular issue. The thought process might not be so logical in the first place. And really, think about the last meal decision you made: How quickly can you truly identify exactly why you picked that place for lunch? Now try to apply a one-sentence explainer to a person’s death. It’s just not fair to the deceased.
I urge our readers to look through these guidelines and think through them yourself. Try to understand how well-meaning sorrow and mourning could have unintended consequences.