Reporting suicide: risks and benefits

When reporting on suicide, do journalists consider sensitivity?

George Tomie doesn’t beg. But on one winter evening in 1994, at his home near Sydney, N.S., he made an exception.

He was doing his best to convince CBC-TV not to air a photo of his son Neal in its 6 p.m. broadcast. It had only been 12 hours since Tomie found Neal’s body. Neal, at 15-years-old, was Nova Scotia’s most recent suicide.

The house that evening was crowded with family and friends, grief-stricken from the death. Among them were the parents of Neal’s best friend Jamie, who had killed himself 32 days earlier.

Tomie managed to slip away from the gathering into his bedroom to speak on the phone with someone from CBC.

“I’m going to do something I never do,” Tomie said to him soberly. “I’m going to beg you.”

Two hours later, Tomie says, CBC ran its broadcast and included Neal’s photo.

In 1994, the year Neal died, there were 3,479 suicides in Canada. The annual average over the past 20 years has been about 3,600. Despite recommendations by the World Health Organization and the United Nations, Canada does not have a national suicide prevention strategy.

Journalists may be key players when it comes to how Canadians understand and react to suicide. Each week, eight out of 10 adults read at least one of Canada’s daily newspapers. Since the average Canadian doesn’t spend their Sunday mornings digging through suicide research, we mostly hear about suicide  through news reports.

The suicide experts — Canadians who just might spend their Sundays reading the stats — say 90 per cent of people who kill themselves suffer from addiction or mental illness.

In 2006, a Canadian Senate committee created the country’s first report on mental health: Out of the Shadows at Last. The report showed resources for mentally ill Canadians were scarce. It exposed Canada’s failure to integrate mental health into the physical health system, and revealed significant mental illness stigmas. Essentially, Out of the Shadows at Last made it clear Canada needed a mental health commission. One was established in 2007.

In 2012, the Mental Health Commission of Canada released the country’s first mental health strategy. That was a big accomplishment for Canadians. Australia, New Zealand and England have had mental health strategies since the 1990s. Before 2012, Canada was the only G8 country without one.

Debbie Cornforth picked up George Tomie in a bar on his birthday in 1993, and the two haven’t parted since. Her short, black hair shoots up all as one, showing ears that dangle triangular, silver earrings.

“She’s my rock,” says Tomie.

“We’re each other’s rocks,” replies Cornforth. “Together we make a boulder.”

Tomie’s eyes are pale blue and his skin looks weathered. He speaks with powerful, straightforward diction, almost like a tough guy – but he’s got a soft side. 

“If you look at the picture of a kid (who’s) just died, picture your own kids,” he says. He wants journalists to be sensitive toward people grieving suicide loss. When he recalls CBC airing Neal’s photo nearly 20 years ago, he still sounds bitter.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Suicide Prevention Resource Center say journalists should avoid publishing a photo of a suicide victim. Some journalists don’t agree with that suggestion, though.

CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin says sometimes, like with celebrity suicides, it’s appropriate to publish a picture of the person.

The CPA and SPRC media guidelines also encourage reporters to avoid mentioning the method or location of a suicide, and suggest reporters include symptoms of suicide and resources for help. Some scientists have also created media guidelines, to prevent news reports from triggering copycat suicides.

Canadian and American studies, though, show reporters often do not follow these guidelines.

In 2011 the University of Washington Tacoma evaluated military and civilian coverage of suicide, using the SPRC guidelines. In articles about civilian suicides, written by civilian news outlets, 99 per cent didn’t include prevention resources. Similarly, 82.4 per cent mentioned the suicide method and 84.3 per cent mentioned the location.

A 2013 McGill University study shows the scope is larger than just suicide reporting. The study looked at mental illness articles in Canadian newspapers. Treatment was only mentioned in 19 per cent of articles, and 83 per cent didn’t include a quotation from a mentally ill person. In 40 per cent of articles about mental illness, the key topics were danger, violence and criminality.

In reality, the study said, mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Debbie Cornforth believes that in the news business “gore sells.” George Tomie nods in agreement. But he also remembers going to the Cape Breton Post to personally shake one reporter’s hand for his coverage of Neal’s suicide.

Tomie says the pain of his loss will never go away entirely. “It just gets placed somewhere else, but it comes out every once in a while. It’ll give you a little kick or nudge to remind you.”

Cornforth says the media can help spread the message about suicide prevention. “We need to change the public’s view, and their thinking. The media has the power to do that.”

Zindel Segal, keynote speaker at the 2013 Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention conference and author of The Mindful Way Through Depression, says, “the media can be part of the problem, and on the other hand, part of the solution.”

The Canadian Psychiatric Association media guidelines suggest journalists have an impact on suicide. The guidelines say that studies show that when the location and method of a suicide are in the news, it can trigger vulnerable people to kill themselves. The term for this phenomenon is copycat suicide.

“I don’t know why we need special rules for suicide. That’s my bottom line. Let’s do good journalism no matter what we cover.”

– André Picard, Globe and Mail.

J.D. Schramm is a communications professor at Stanford University, and he says copycat suicide is real. In 2003, Schramm jumped off the Manhattan Bridge in New York City. He shattered his right arm, broke ribs, punctured his lung – and survived.

“I consider myself to be a lucky layman,” says Schramm. “I was fortunate that I (didn’t) succeed at the mistake I was making.”

He believes in copycat suicide because when he was teaching at New York University between fall 2003 and spring 2004, five or six students killed themselves. But Schramm wants to leave it to experts to decide if the media is to blame for copycats.

Michael Price is the director of Communities Addressing Suicide Together, an organization set up by the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Nova Scotia division. Price says if journalists follow media guidelines, reporters “can actually make (communities) safer from suicide.” Price also believes copycat suicide is real.

But some journalists beg to differ.

Michael Landsberg, host of a TSN sports talk show, isn’t convinced about copycats. He’s struggled with depression for 16 years and spoken about it publicly for four. He says when people want to kill themselves, that’s coming from somewhere deeper than news imitation.

Co-founder of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, Cliff Lonsdale, says blaming journalists oversimplifies why people kill themselves. “Cause and effect is never as simple as you think it is.”

The Globe and Mail’s André Picard says reporters may not follow media guidelines because they come from people who aren’t journalists.

Picard has won the national Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service Journalism and has been named a Champion of Mental Health by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. But he doesn’t follow any media guidelines. “Like in French grammar,” Picard says, “every rule has exceptions.”

Picard has looked carefully at the studies on copycat suicide. He says, “I don’t know why we need special rules for suicide, that’s my bottom line. Let’s do good journalism no matter what we cover… The role of the media is information. If the information is education, well, all the better.”

Perhaps reporters will accept the findings of a new guide now being created by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. It’s set to launch March, 2014. Like other sets of guidelines, it will give journalists suggestions on how to report on mental illness and suicide.

Linda Bayers, executive director of Self-Help Connection in Dartmouth, is helping Nicole West start a support group for teens with mental illness. (Photo: Megan Marrelli-Dill)
Linda Bayers, executive director of Self-Help Connection in Dartmouth, is helping Nicole West start a support group for teens with mental illness. (Photo: Megan Marrelli-Dill)

Unlike the other guides, journalists have written this one.

Co-founder of the forum, Cliff Lonsdale, describes the guide as “a bunch of journalists trying to help other journalists.”

It will be given to journalism students across Canada, too. Lonsdale, of London, Ontario, says that’s because when we change the way we report, “it’s effective to get the next generation involved.”

Millennials may already be on top of mental health awareness. Nicole West is an 18-year-old near Dartmouth, N.S., trying to get teenagers talking about suicide and mental illness.

West created the group Teens Helping Teens for teenagers who struggle with depression and anxiety.

She’s working closely with Linda Bayers, the spunky executive-director of Self-Help Connection, a charity operating under Nova Scotia’s division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The group meets every two weeks at the Cole Harbour-Woodside United Church.

West was in grade 10 when her friend Jeremy killed himself. One year later, his brother Jason did the same.

After George Tomie found his 15-year-old son’s body in 1994, he didn’t sleep soundly for months. “Every time I closed my eyes, that’s what I saw. It was like that for days.”

He visited his son’s grave in Sydney River twice a day for a year. It took him two years to throw out Neal’s clothing.

One fall afternoon, Tomie stopped by the cemetery on his way home from work. He stood weeping in front of the grave. The sky was bright and the air felt crisp. Something dawned on Tomie. He stopped crying. He looked at Neal’s grave and said to his son, “It’s time to let you go. Not forget you, never forget you. But let you go. Because I’ve got something to do.”

After that, Tomie began working his way into schools around Sydney, N.S. to educate kids on how suicide hurts families.

It was difficult to get access at first, but in the end he spoke to about 60 classes.

Now Tomie facilitates a Halifax support group, Survivors of Suicide, for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. The group meets at St. Andrew’s United Church, at Robie Street and Coburg Road, on the second Wednesday of each month.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about my loss,” Tomie says. “It’s about helping other people. You know the movie Pay It Forward? That’s what you do, you pay it forward.”

“Has it brought satisfaction? Has it brought light out of the darkness? Absolutely.”

Edit/Layout by Zeina Jreige.
Spring 2014