Liz Goodwin recently posted this blog entry on how mental illness may be dangerously absent from the bullying debate that is taking place in this country after the tragic suicide at Rutgers last month. Goodwin cites Ann Haas, the research director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who fears that we are ignoring mental illness, the underlying factor in 90% of all suicide cases. Further, Haas argues that some reporting may actually normalize suicide and give other teenagers the green light to end their own lives.
Mental illness is a huge issue in this country – one which we have traditionally ignored or under-treated in favor of more visible, physical affliction. So, it’s probably fair to say that reporting on recent suicides has left out mental illness in favor of bullying. Unsurprisingly, media needs stories people read – and visible conflict with others (bullying) reads a lot better than “invisible” conflict with oneself (mental illness). Further, news will often highlight the most recent trigger to an event – as opposed to the more complex underlying factors that gave cause to it. So, again, mental illness (underlying factor) gives way to bullying (most recent triggers).
Yes, by all means, we need to focus more attention on mental illness and spend more resources on treatment. However, we don’t think it’s a bad thing that this country is focusing so much attention on bullying these days. Whether somebody has a mental illness or not – bullying is a dangerous accelerant that deserves our attention.
We find Haas’ assertion controversial that media stories that portray suicide in a sympathetic light can lead to copycat behavior in teens. (Goodwin’s post has over 100 comments for a reason.) For one, this raises a very interesting question of how the media should report these cases. Should the media report not report on the deeper emotions or outside triggers that surrounded suicide victims’ death? Because any story that goes deeper in depth and offers up more color will naturally be a story that evokes sympathy or even feelings of association within readers. Whether these emotions can actually lead the reader to consider or commit suicide is another question.
As long as there has been mankind, there has been suicide and, inevitably, people who have spoken or wrote about those tragic stories. While there have and will always be copycat cases – it seems to us that suicide has a very long way to go before it becomes a glorified or even accepted response to a seemingly unbearable situation. Looking at the data, at least in aggregate, it does not look like we are currently faced with a copycat problem: the suicide rate from 1950-1980 dropped from 13.2 for every 100,000 to about 11 by 2003; suicide rates for ages 5-24 increased dramatically from 1950 to the mid-1990s – but then it began to decrease again.
Do you think reporting on suicide can inspire copycat suicides? How do you think media should cover suicide?