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Tuesday, February 19, 2008 

Reporting suicide compassionately.

A few years ago, for a number of reasons, I became suicidally depressed. This wasn't just teenage angst on a grander scale; I was positively a danger to myself. I self-harmed; I hung from a railway bridge over a river and wanted, desperately, to let myself go, and when I pulled myself back up, I hated myself and my pathetic nature even more. For those who've never been depressed, let alone severely depressed, you simply can't know how a person ever thinks or feels when they're in that sort of a downward spiral. The gloom, the mood, whether you call it a black dog as Churchill so accurately described it, or something different, both inhabits and inhibits your every action. In every different person it manifests itself in a different way: I tried, as best I could, to hide it. I laughed, I joked, I tried to participate; then I went home and probably cried while I walked. In my case, I went to sleep praying that I wouldn't wake up in the morning, and then when I woke up I was even angrier and sadder that my wish hadn't come true. Your constant desire, if not always at the front of your mind then nowhere near the back, is to die, and as quickly as possible. At moments I was absolutely furious, both at myself and at the world at large; in the next I was so self-defeating that I would have accepted anything that anyone had wanted to do to me.

Thankfully, and with the help of both anti-depressants and a NHS mental health team that has bent over backwards, I've made something approaching a recovery. I can't pretend that the experience hasn't deeply affected me, and it's certainly changed my perspective on a whole host of things. It also I would hope have given me an insight into what it's like to be mentally ill, temporarily or permanently. That's why the coverage on the "Bridgend suicides" is now so concerning me.

The media at large are now reporting that the 17th suicide within the space around of a year has occurred. There's a problem with that very fact to begin with: it implies that there's a connection between them. As the police and the coroner have been at pains to point out throughout, they have completely failed to find any link between the suicides; no evidence of any pact; nothing to suggest that the teenagers had been encouraging each other to kill themselves; and certainly nothing even to support the contention that there's a cult linked to the online memorials to those who have killed themselves on social networking websites.

Instead, what there certainly is is a growing belief that the heightened media coverage is only exacerbating the problem. Wherever or whenever the suicides began, the pattern appeared to be that friends of those that had committed suicide were also making attempts on their lives. Doubtless the loss of their friends influenced their actions, but it would be naive to believe that was the only reason why they tried to kill themselves. Now it seems to increasingly be that those who had no dealings with the others are making what could be copycat attempts, although it's impossible to be certain. That hanging seems to have been the method chosen certainly suggests that's the case. Of course, this could also be to fall into the same trap as the media themselves have; we might be looking for patterns that aren't there, when we know that mental health problems will now affect 1 in 4 at some point during their lives.

The pressure and media move into Bridgend does however seem to have had anything but a positive effect. Very few of the organisations involved in reporting have taken any notice for example of the Samaritans' guide to reporting suicide. A number of its sections are worth quoting:

A fine line remains between sensitive, intelligent reporting by the media and sensationalising the issue. The focus should be on educating and informing the public. Copycat suicides account for about six percent of all suicides and the imitative behaviour can follow certain types of news reports and other portrayals of suicide.

Consider the timing.

The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people makes the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of "another suicide, just days after…", which might imply a connection. There are 17 suicides every day, most of which go unreported.

One of the findings of a systematic review of research literature on suicide and the media concluded that "certain portrayals tend to increase the likelihood that imitative behaviour will occur", with prominent or repetitive news coverage of particular concern. When added in to how misguided and sensational some of the coverage, especially in the tabloids with the largest circulation and most likely to be read by the young has been, there's a high possibility that at the moment the media is doing more harm than good.

I'm not one of those who is completely opposed to suicide or any discussion of it whatsoever for fear that people will get ideas. I think that's an entirely wrong and simplistic message which people use to put all the blame on everyone other than themselves, especially when the young kill themselves. There are times when suicide should be accepted as something approaching honourable, or as the least worst way out, rather than as something to be dismissed as cowardly or as leaving others to pick up the pieces. Every case needs to be assessed on its merits.

I think we can all agree though that those who have killed themselves in Bridgend, especially the teenagers, have not experienced enough of life to be able to make any sort of decision on whether their life is worth living or not. Those who are mourning the death of their friends need space to be able to grieve and come to terms with what has happened; losing friends young is always incredibly difficult to accept or make sense of, and is especially likely to affect someone for the rest of their life. The media need to back off, leave Bridgend and at the very least adhere to the recommendations of the Samaritans. While the media should not be personally blamed for anything that has happened, as that itself would be to simplify and ignore the multiple reasons behind what has occurred, it needs to respect the requests of an increasing amount of those in Bridgend itself and at the very least stop its rampant speculation and lack of feeling for those caught up in what is nothing less than a continuing tragedy.

Then again, Madeleine Moon is currently on Newsnight blaming the media when she was the one scaremongering recklessly about social networking sites in the first place. Perhaps there really isn't any connection whatsoever to anything.

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There is, however, something in the National Statistics data that suggests that South Wales has an upward trend in suicide while the national trend (including the rest of Wales) has been downwards for several years. This would explain the Bridgend 'cluster' (just the media noticing one part of this with a 'human interest' angle and the internet to blame) but there's evidence of an issue here, although the chances of the press spotting it are subzero.

There can be cultural reasons for high suicide rates - at one point Hungary was particularly bad. What fixed it was better mental health care, apparently, as the reduction coincided with the post-communist upheavals and associated economic problems and unemployment.

Suicide rates are way way worse in Scotland, which has the entire top ten per 100,000 population for men and three of the top ten for women. The worst place for both is Glasgow.

The other obvious cultural example would be Japan, where it's never been a taboo or religiously condemned as it is in the West. Wikipedia suggests that Lithuania has the highest suicide rate per 100,000 of population. Japan comes in a surprising 8th.

The media though isn't going to get into waffle about statistics, especially when it's the young that are committing suicide and as we all know, that's not what they're supposed to do. These clusters do occur, but the media certainly isn't helping by shoving it down everyone's throat, regardless of their duty to investigate and report or otherwise.

In Emile Durkheim's book on the subject he finds a definite link between newspaper reporting of suicides and numbers of suicides. I haven't got it here, but the increase in suicide numbers once others get publicised is drastic.

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