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Can you catch suicide? Journalists and doctors disagree on how to get people to stop killing themselves

April 23, 2012

By Ora Morison

Murder and crime have been grabbing headlines since printing presses started to run, but self-murder, or suicide – a crime under English common law until 1961 – has long been a verboten topic for the media.

It used to be that if a person died by suicide, even the most dogged of reporters withdrew from covering the story, but these days journalists are more comfortable reporting on self-inflicted deaths.

When 15-year-old Jamie Hubley from Ottawa killed himself last fall, journalists’ reports abounded. More than 150 newspaper articles mentioned Hubley in the months following his death, and over the past year, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have run feature series on youth suicide.

This kind of coverage is a victory for some – namely journalists who believe it is their job to report on even sensitive and tragic events – but to others, it’s treading on dangerous ground. Psychologists who study suicide and work daily with suicidal people say reporting on suicide can encourage more people to kill themselves.

Dr. Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist at the University of Western Ontario and one of Canada’s leading suicide researchers, said journalists’ work can “glorify” a suicidal person, and detailing the methods people use to kill themselves can inadvertently become a how-to guide for another person thinking about suicide.  In the medical community, this idea that reporting on one suicide can spur others is called the “contagion effect.”

“The media will publish what they think people are interested in, but they also shape interest,” Heisel said.

In 2009 the Canadian Psychiatric Association updated and re-published guidelines for safe reporting on suicides. Among other rules, journalists are told the word ‘suicide’ should not appear in a headline, suicide-related articles should not be on the front page, and the media should not show photos of the person who died.

Recent features on suicide paid little heed to these rules. “The tragedy of teen suicide,” headlined a Toronto Star article last fall, and many of the articles about Jamie Hubley were illustrated with photos and even video footage of the teen, a budding performer.

“The message to young people is that you get … attention with this kind of thing,” Heisel said.

The CPA guidelines cite studies that show a “causal link” between reporting and copycat suicides. In one example from Austria, news items about people jumping in front of subway cars were considered responsible for other subway suicides that followed.

The Globe and Mail’s public health reporter André Picard doesn’t buy it. All that study showed was that more people chose to kill themselves in front of a train, not that more people chose suicide outright, Picard said.

He agrees with most of the CPA guidelines, but there are some with which he won’t comply.

In an Internet age, rules that say not to discuss how a person died are unrealistic, he said.

“Those are good guidelines for the 1970s,” said Picard, who covered suicide for the first time in 1986. Today, details of the death are widely known whether he reports on them or not.

“Within seconds people are tweeting about it,” Picard said.

The CPA also encourages reporters to include information in their articles about where to get help if you are thinking about suicide.

“Globe readers are not stupid,” Picard said in response. They know how to Google support groups if they want.

Liam Casey, a journalist for the Toronto Star, came at the issue of suicide reporting from a personal angle when, in 2010, he wrote “Suicide notes: A writer who once contemplated killing himself demands an end to the newsroom silence so that others will live,” for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Casey openly described his own suicidal thoughts and argued that reporting on suicide can help remove stigma and ultimately save lives.

As someone who’s been there, Casey doesn’t believe suicidal people are influenced by any contagion effect – and so he brushes off psychologists’ attempts to regulate the way journalists report.

“I don’t know if you need specific guidelines,” Casey said. For him, the most important criterion is to portray the difficult issue realistically.

“[Suicide] is complicated and if we can convey that complexity it helps,” Casey said.

To Casey, the barriers to reporting those complexities are upheld by groups, such as the police, convinced the contagion effect is real when it’s not.

“It’d be nice if we could call the cops and ask about a specific suicide,” Casey said. “The cops are open with a lot of info, but not that.”

Families are sometimes also reluctant to speak with reporters in the wake of personal loss, but Casey said he believes even their pleas for privacy don’t trump the need to report.

“You want the family to buy in,” Casey said. “But it’s not a reason not to write about it [if they don’t.]”

After Jamie Hubley died, his father, Ottawa city councilor Allan Hubley, wanted to share his son’s story. He wanted to show other suicidal teens the pain they would cause if they killed themselves.

Like Casey, Hubley believes talking about suicide can be positive but acknowledges he and his wife made a conscious decision to work with the media.

“Not every family will choose to do that,” he said.

Hubley vehemently opposes Casey’s idea that journalists should report on a suicide without the family’s consent.

“When they won’t respect the family’s wishes, my belief is that the readers will be very disappointed,” he said.

Hubley is familiar with the CPA guidelines and believes they are a good way to ensure careful reporting about suicide. He believes the contagion effect is a real threat, but also knows that reporting on suicide can have the opposite effect as well.

Following Jamie’s death the Hubleys received a letter from another teen who decided not to go through with a planned suicide after seeing the Hubley family’s suffering.

Nothing will bring Jamie back, Hubley said, but this shows at least some good can come from his family’s loss – and it proves some good can come from suicide reporting.

“I don’t think not talking about something makes it better,” said André Picard.

It is a sentiment not many would argue with, but is any family’s personal tragedy fair game? Or are we to rely on certain brave families to divulge private loss?

As journalists are being encouraged to break their “final taboo,” what remains to be seen is whether the public can trust reporters to get it right while breaking with doctors’ guidelines.

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I wrote this analysis piece as part of my advanced print reporting class in February 2011. Many thanks to the knowledgeable and willing sources I spoke with.

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