My first job in radio was for a small radio network in the B.C. interior. Within weeks of starting, the local newspaper reporter told me that a death we’d reported on a few days previous was, in fact, a suicide. I called my News Editor. “We don’t report suicides,” he sternly told me. “No media do.”
He was right. Even today, you’d be hard-pressed to find the media report that a death was a suicide, unless the individual was famous or the suicide was undeniably public.
In the days following Rick Rypien‘s suicide, reporters bent themselves into etymological pretzels trying to come as close as saying as much, without actually using “the S word”:
- “died suddenly, and lived with depression”
- “his family was stunned by the news, but police don’t suspect foul play”
- “unexpected, but non-violent death”
There is some logic to not reporting suicides — studies show that people with existing suicidal ideations are at higher risk of killing themselves when exposed to news about the suicides of “others, such as family members, peers, or media figures.”1
But I wonder if, in our attempt to protect those at higher risk of suicide, we do a disservice to the wider community in making it seem that suicides are not common. They are — a lot more than you think. Ask any police officer.
The media, for better or worse, are the glasses through which we understand what happens around us and what it means. If we continue to pretend suicides don’t happen as frequently as they do, then how can we blame governments for underfunding research and services for people with mental illness? Worse, the stigma will live on and be reinforced.
(It is changing, slowly — just this month, Australia media lifted the self-imposed veil of secrecy, saying people are finding out about suicides through social media anyway.)
We keep things on the hush-hush when we’re embarrassed about them.
Mental illness should not be one of those things.
UPDATE: As I was writing this post, the CBC reported that it had confirmed from multiple sources that Wade Belak, who died today in Toronto, did so at his own hand. He was the sixth hockey player to do so since 1978.