Media and Mental Illness: Sheepish Reporting on the Matter is Perpetuating the Stigma of Depression and Suicide

On average, about 45 people die from suicide in this province every year. That’s close to one local ending their life here every week. So why are we afraid to talk about it?

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On average, about 45 people die from suicide in this province every year. That’s close to one local ending their life here every week. So why are people afraid to talk about it?

The obituary says they “died suddenly.” Public police statements say the death is “not suspicious in nature.” If the deceased’s passing is newsworthy, the reporter won’t give the cause of death much attention, because people in despair may be influenced by the report.

Tina Davies lost her son to suicide; Richard was 18 years old when he hung himself in the family home. She says it helped her to talk about how and why her son died, but others felt suicide was something that should be covered up. “It contributes to the feeling that it’s something to be ashamed of. That it’s something to hide.” Davies says because of that shame, many families find it hard to acknowledge the death of a family member who died by suicide. “It’s that stigma that we have to get rid of.”

In 2009 she started a support group to get people talking. Within the group, Davies says families talk openly about loved ones who died by suicide. But outside the group, many feel they have something to hide. “Your husband or child who died by suicide died from an illness. The same as anybody else.”

Davies says for her son, mental illness was like any other terminal illness, but many people don’t see it that way. “When someone loses a child to cancer, while that child is in the hospital that child gets visitors, flowers, and gifts. If your child is in the Waterford, your child doesn’t get many visitors, certainly no flowers or gifts, it’s a different outlook. You’re shunned.”

Suicide was removed from the criminal code of Canada more than forty years ago, but Davies says people still think choosing to end your life is committing a crime. “It wasn’t that long ago in this province that a person who died by suicide couldn’t be buried in consecrated grounds.” Davies thinks suicide “should be an everyday word. The same way cancer is. And it has to start with the first responders

In December, police asked for the public’s help to find a missing 70-year-old St.John’s man. Media outlets reported the man missing. A few days later, his body was found. Police determined the death was “not suspicious” and the story ended there.

When the investigation into a sudden death is concluded, police release very little and what they do say is cryptic. Tina Davies says avoiding the use of the word suicide reinforces the stigma attached to mental illness.

Davies says the media plays an important role too. If a suicide happens in public or is newsworthy, people have a right to know and media organizations have a responsibility to tell them. But it must be done with great sensitivity. The World Health Organization says media plays a significant role in preventing suicides. It warns that vulnerable people may be influenced by the report and could imitate a behavior.

CBC is also conscious of the copycat phenomenon. Its policy on reporting suicides, according to the Journalistic Practices and Standards says to “avoid describing the act in detail or illustrating the method, and consider the risk of glorifying this behavior or of influencing vulnerable people.”

But as Tina says, “People don’t take their life just because somebody else has. There are other things that attribute to a suicide.” She says people need to shift the way they think about suicide. “For every thousand people, there’s a thousand ways to die. People die in all kinds of ways and it’s unfortunate that suicide is looked down upon as selfish, as a cowardly way out. There’s nothing cowardly and there’s nothing selfish about suicide.”

Article by Amy Stoodley

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