Does not reporting on suicide enhance the stigma of suicide and mental illness?

Monday’s Walnut Creek Patch story about a 54-year-old man who apparently leaped to his death from Kaiser medical center’s four-story garage prompted discussion about whether suicide is “news.” That is, whether it is worth reporting. Inherent in the question are several possible beliefs.

One is that suicide is shameful and the man who died, Michael Spence of Livermore, should be spared that kind label attached to his death. The other is that reporting on suicides might give other people ideas.

Editor Dave Mills pointed out that news organizations usually report on suicides only if they happen in a public place where the event could have been witnessed by others. That is true. News organizations rarely report on suicides if the person overdoses on pills or shoots himself in the in the privacy of his own home.

You rarely see suicide mentioned as the cause of death in an obituary. However, sometimes you can pick up hints, if the person was fairly young and died suddenly and the family, in lieu of flowers, asks that donations be made to an organization such as the National Alliance on Mental Health.

One time, I did come across an obituary of a young man–yes, I am one of those people who scan the obituaries in the Contra Costa Times most mornings–and his family was very forthright in saying that their handsome son, in his 20s, died by taking his own life. The obituary explained that he had been dealing with the demons of depression and other terrifying symptoms of mental illness since he was a teenager.

My throat tightened with sadness for this family, but also with awe at their courage. They were not going to hide in shame at the cause of his death. They were going to be upfront that their son, like someone with cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, had a chronic and sometimes life-threatening illness. And, he died of that illness, not from some character or moral defect. With this obituary, the family was bravely doing its part to chip away at the stigma that surrounds mental illness and suicide.

Suicide is a major killer of Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control. In 2007,34,598 people died of self-inflicted injuries, making it the 11th leading cause of death, behind heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and accidents, including 41,059 who died in traffic accidents. That same year, 16,929 people were murdered. Suicide is also the seventh leading cause of death for men, the 15th for women, and the third for teens and young adults 15 to 24.

Over the past few years, researchers have noticed a disturbing trend: suicide rates for middle-aged people are edging up. “Men have long had higher rates of suicide than women, and whites in the United States are more likely to kill themselves than are African, Hispanic, or Asian Americans,” according to an article on the Good Men Project website. “But it’s only in recent years that the middle-aged have overtaken older people as the ones most likely to die by suicide. In 2007 (the latest year for which statistics are available), people aged forty-five to fifty-four had the highest suicide rate of any age group: 17.7 per 100,000.

It’s not yet known what was going on in the life of Michael Spence that prompted him to take that final leap. The National Institute of Mental Health says risk factors for suicide include depression and other mental disorders, and substance abuse (often in combination with other mental disorders). More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors. Other risk factors include a family history of suicide, mental illness, violence, or physical or sexual abuse.

The Walnut Creek-based
Contra Costa Crisis Center, which runs the 24-hour crisis lines for the county, said there is no typical suicide victim. “Suicide transcends all ages beginning with adolescence, all ethnicities and cultures, all socio-economic groups, and all religions, as well as gender, sexual orientation, and ablebodiness.:

The center says there are some common warning signs. They include:

• Talking about suicide or making statements revealing a desire to die.
• Drastic changes in behavior (withdrawal, apathy, moodiness).
• Losing interest in hobbies and in personal appearance.
• Depression (crying, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, hopelessness)
• Worsening academic or job performance and sudden failure to complete assignments.
• Lack of interest in activities and surroundings (dropping out of sports and clubs).
• Settling affairs (giving away prized possessions such as books or a CD collection).
• Increased moodiness, irritability, or aggressiveness.
• Remarks suggesting profound unhappiness, despair, or feelings of worthlessness.
• Death and suicidal themes in written work.
• Self-destructive behavior (taking unnecessary risks or increased drug or alcohol use).

If you are in a life-threatening situation, call 911. If you’re in crisis, call 800-273-TALK (8255) to reach the nearest, nationally-certified crisis center. Residents of Contra Costa County can also reach the crisis line by calling 800-833-2900.

2 thoughts on “Does not reporting on suicide enhance the stigma of suicide and mental illness?

  1. I believe that reporting suicides can lead to a copycat effect. This might affect people who are out looking for attention. If people knew that they could get on the news for suicide, there might be a few more people who would do sensational things to get on the news.

    Unfortunately, even if we reported suicides, there will still be a stigma about suicide. People need to be educated that for every action, there is a reason. There are reasons for people's behaviors.

    I have a degree in Psychology. The issue here is that many people believe that suicidal people kill themselves for no reason at all.

    This is not the case. The real issues that cause them to commit suicide could be kept secret by the person. For example, they might have been sexually abused and never told anyone. These victims often keep silent out of fear of humiliation. Sometimes the people who sexually abused them are family members.

    There are many reasons for suicide and often these individuals have no one to talk to. The biggest benefit from therapy has always been talking. Just talking and sharing what is going on with another person has a very huge beneficial effect. This could be simple conversations at dinner time between family members.

    Often times, these suicide victims don't have anyone to talk to because their parents are the ones who abused them. It could have been physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and not sexual abuse. These suicidal people have critical life issues and conflicts. Since there is no one to talk to they end up in a state of loneliness and isolation. Issues build up to an extreme level and these people end up ending their lives.

    I know that there have been many parents of suicide victims that did not sexually abuse their children but they were verbally abusive, too strict, etc. You don't have to hit to hurt. They were totally taken by surprise when their children killed themselves. These parents are often in denial about their parenting skills. They believe that they are the best parents in the world and that their children are to blame. In fact, it was the harsh and verbally abusive parents that started these problems in the first place.

    Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. Some children can take verbal abuse. They bounce back and they don't let it affect them. Other children don't have these defenses. They learn to become hopeless and helpless. They don't seek help and their lives spiral downward into depression all the way until they grow up.

    I know that there are many responsible and loving parents out there. However, if you look back at the parents of most people who commit suicide, you can see that many of them were not model parents. You can see histories of verbal abuse, family fighting, neglect, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.

    We hear reports of a person jumping off a building and we are shocked. That is because we haven't heard the whole story. If you knew this person's whole story I think you could probably see that they had terrible childhoods or severe histories of continuous abuse that not even the most stable person could withstand. Something was eventually going to snap without intervention.

    If we report suicides, there will always be a blame the suicidal person mentality. Unless were to publish a biography explaining their entire life story, the suicidal person would get no sympathy. If were to publish life stories we might then get the blame the abusive parents mentality.


  2. Sorry about the grammar in the last paragraph.

    It should say:

    Unless we were to publish a biography explaining their entire life story, the suicidal person would get no sympathy. If we were to publish life stories we might then get the blame the abusive parents mentality.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s