I spent most of May finishing a project a year in the making: a package on teen suicide prevention co-written with Alexis Cortes at the News-Democrat. Alexis and I started working on this story before I was transferred to a different team, so it didn’t really have to take a year, but it kept getting postponed during the reorganization.
It was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on, and one that made me quite nervous. I’ve written about sensitive subjects many times – a series on domestic violence, an in-depth look at shaken baby syndrome, unlicensed day care centers, LGBT rights pre-Obergefell, racist harassment, etc. All of these subjects required careful, deft handling of both sources and subject matter.
But none of them had the blatant warning sign: If you do this wrong, people will die.
Suicide contagion is a real thing and we shouldn’t scoff at it, particularly in the news business. Several reliable studies show that completed suicides rose by 10 percent in the weeks following Robin Williams’ suicide, which was widely covered in the press. Talking about suicide doesn’t make a mentally healthy person commit suicide. But something about reading about suicide or watching depictions of suicide in entertainment has a tendency to tip a person on the edge over into an attempt.
I told Alexis several times during our efforts to report on teen suicide that I’d rather we did it in a boring way or not at all than do it wrong and have suicide attempts on our hands. Both of us took extreme care in the reporting of the piece, and we were backed up all the way by our editing and audiovisual team.
Our first instinct, of course, was to focus on a family that had lost a teen to suicide and the impact it had on them. But I made a habit of asking every expert we interviewed one question at the end: “Do you have any suggestions for how we can approach this subject without doing more harm than good?”
And they all said, “Please don’t focus on a grieving family, or the memorials, the damage they leave behind.” Apparently that is one of the things that tends to kick off suicide contagion – along with graphic depictions of suicide methods, or words like “unsuccessful suicide attempt” as if suicide itself is a success. Or, as they told us, everything that 13 Reasons Why did in both seasons.
The show was part of the reason we looked at the issue, tracking the number of completed suicides in our region compared with state and national rates. With the guidance of counselors and experts, we focused instead on a young woman who survived, on ways schools are trying to cope with teen mental health, and on paths to heal and get better.
I’m proud of the work we did, and just as happy that we managed to do it ethically and responsibly. Would it have been a more compelling piece with a grieving family weeping into the camera and sad pictures of a grave? Perhaps. But it would not have been a responsible piece, and that’s more important than the hit count.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Also published in May:
Swastika vandalism suspect refuses to speak in court (Yes, that’s in reference to this incident.)
Scarlet Letters: Memorial Day, or look out, it’s another food post!
Watch this space Monday for a major announcement.