Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A suicidal silence

Suicide is something I've been thinking about for a while - not as a personal prospect I hasten to add - but the way it's reported in the media.

Or rather I should say the way it goes unreported in the media.

Of course there are very noteable exceptions - and of these Bridgend is the obvious example.

But how well did the press respond to what appeared to be a spate of suicides in a tight-knit teenage community? Badly, I would argue.

Suicide is something the media industry is scared of, we don't understand it and neither do our audience. By definition the person who has ended their life has reached a point of isolation which they felt no-one could help them back from, plus by the time anyone finds out it's too late for questions.

I'm not trying to be flippant about this, I think it's really important, but I also think it's time we changed the tone of the discussion because suicide is frighteningly normal.

The only more "normal" way to die if you're male and aged under 35 is to be involved in a car crash.

According to the mental health charity MIND suicide accounts for almost 23% of all deaths of people aged 15–24 years.

Working on a regional weekly paper I can vouch for the fact that almost every single traffic accident, fatal or minor, we get to hear of is reported online or in print.

The same is not true for suicides. Why?

Certainly we find out about less cases - there's no denying it's easier to spot a three car pile up than it is a paracetamol overdose - but that's not the reason suicides goes unreported.

Post Bridgend it feels as though the issue is one of the last taboos left in the news industry.

The reports about the Bridgend deaths made things worse, not better, because journalists tried to force a sexy narrative that simply wasn't there onto the events and, in doing so, once again reinforced the idea that there has to be an exceptional back story to merit reporting on a person taking their own life.

Bridgend isn't a tiny village, the young people that died did not all know one another, the numbers were worrying - but not that much higher than the expected average, and by now it's clear that there was no suicide pact cooked up on Bebo.

Often the feeling is that unless there's a "news angle" it would be intrusive and unneccessary to report on a "straightforward" suicide.

I think that's wrong: Yes, suicide is a harrowing thing for any family to have to deal with, yes, grief is personal, and yes, mental health issues are difficult to report sensitively and responsibly - but that doesn't mean suicide shouldn't make the news.

If we don't talk about it, then it's stigmatised - and what's more likely to make an isolated and desperate 19-year-old feel like a freak than a total absence of the issue in mainstream culture?

But the British press aren't a bunch of sensitive souls who back down when people get upset, so why does this culture exist?

There are several reasons. For a start I think the industry assumes that there's no public appetite for suicide stories because the issue is depressing and therefore likely to turn readers off. Which is nonsense if you ask me - people have a natural, morbid curiousity in tales of tragic misery - we all know that good news doesn't sell papers.

Then there's the Press Complaints Commission Code 5 ii) which states: "When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."
Obviously the code doesn't prevent journalists writing stories about suicide, it just asks us to be responsible in the way that we do it - but its very existence (it's a relatively recent addition to the code) gives a nervous journalist or news editor something to hide behind.

And while we're talking about hiding, the coroners court does its fair share of hiding its head in the sand on this issue. Open and narrative verdicts are recorded compassionately to save family members the further grief of a suicide verdict - but I can't help thinking this does a huge disservice to those who might benefit from greater awareness of the issues surrounding suicide.

Mental illness is a killer - the only one that the news industry seems scared of - and yet it's the one we could do the most to fight.


Two excellent charities that know the score far better than I do are:
www.thecalmzone.net
www.papyrus-uk.org

1 comment:

Old Reprobate said...

Excellent, as usual, petal... and thought provoking!X