Youth suicide is a community issue

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By Mollie Marti

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I read with intense interest Graham Gillette’s blog, “Suicide: The Painful Discussion,” at http://grahamgillette.blogspot.com/2013/07/suicide-painful-discussion.html (excerpts also published in Aug. 11 Gazette Insight’s Blogfeed).

This blog talked about controversy surrounding the Des Moines Register’s recent article on the suicide of a 16-year-old Southeast Polk High School student, and his mother’s belief that bullying related to his race and sexuality led to her son’s death. The article also listed details about other suicides at the same high school and more recent ones in Iowa.

Gillette explained that he identified two motivations behind rumblings questioning the coverage: the risk that glorifying the teen’s decision will drive a few other teens to copy him, and that framing the coverage as one of bullying and hate was pushing a political agenda. Although he acknowledged some heartbreaking cases of copycat suicides, Gillette reasoned that the article represented the best way to solve teen suicide by addressing the tough issues head-on.

While well-meaning, I think Gillette is making a common mistake of lumping together the need to address the issue of teen suicide with defense of the oversimplification of contributing factors in a way that has been shown to lead to additional deaths by vulnerable individuals, especially young people.

The Community Resiliency Project — http://www.communityresiliencyproject.org/ — originated after the loss of teens to suicide in Mount Vernon. After studying research and best practice, our message to media: An individual suicide is not a newsworthy item. It is a tragedy to be dealt with by grieving family and friends, on their own terms.

DO NO HARM

When a suicide becomes newsworthy for some other reason, such as a youth dying at school, then the media has a responsibility to follow best practices and seek to do no harm in reporting. (Our recent Risky Business Conference presentation at Iowa State University, which included a local television station representative discussing best practices, is available at http://www.crproject.org).

More than 50 studies worldwide have found that the risk of contagion or “copycat” suicides is related to the amount, duration, and prominence — as well as the content — of media coverage. Our nation’s leading suicide prevention organizations have set forth messaging guidelines (see http://tinyurl.com/m8u7u8v and http://tinyurl.com/mxc62l9).

These recommendations include:

l Not glamorizing or romanticizing the victim or suicide itself.

l Not oversimplifying the causes of suicide (e.g., “bullying”)

l Not explaining suicide as the result of the individual’s stressful situation or membership in a group encountering discrimination (e.g., “viciously bullied for his sexual orientation in the weeks before his death”)

l Not focusing on personal details or the method

l Not including photographs of devastated mourners

All of these factors increase the risk that vulnerable young people will identify with the attention and sympathy garnered by someone who has died and seek to end their life in a similar way. Presenting suicide as an act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person encourages identification with the victim.

A COMPLEX ACT

Oversimplification of suicide can mislead people to believe that it is a normal response to fairly common life circumstances. The reality is that suicide is a tremendously complex act.

It appears the Des Moines Register article violated several best practices. More important, it fell short of meeting what is considered the few potential benefits of reporting suicide-related news items: reinforcing the fact that suicide is preventable, emphasizing help-seeking, and providing reputable support resources. Help is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and through local service providers and crisis centers.

Research shows that over 90 percent of those who die by suicide suffered from a significant mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder at the time of death. Coverage should communicate that effective treatments are available.

Media have the unique opportunity to play an important role in seeking to strengthen rather than weaken the social fabric of a community, a critical protective factor for youth. Youth suicide is not a school issue, it is a community issue.

Although significant numbers of young people attempt and die by suicide, it is essential we do not normalize suicide by presenting the data in a way that makes suicide seem common, normal or acceptable. Most people do not seriously consider suicide as an option. Most youth who seriously consider suicide do not overtly act on those thoughts, but find more constructive ways to resolve them. Presenting suicide as a common occurrence, or reaction to a single circumstance, may unintentionally remove a protective bias against suicide in a community.

We implore media to cover suicide carefully — in a way that encourages those in need to seek help, corrects myths, helps change public misperceptions, highlights the resilience of a family or community, and bolsters hope for a better tomorrow. Oversimplification and sensationalism may generate sales and ratings, but it works against suicide prevention and saving young lives.

TALKING WITH YOUTH

Mr. Gillette made many valid points. We certainly are on board with his observation: We need to have a meaningful discussion with our youth explaining that suicide is unnecessary and wrong … and that there is a better way we can find together.

Here’s to moving forward together, learning as we go, and once we know better, to do better for our youth and communities.

l Mollie Marti, a psychologist, is CEO, Community Resiliency Project, Mount Vernon Comments: mwmarti@gmail.com

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