If the audience was expecting a debate, they may have left disappointed.
Globe and Mail reporter Andre Picard and Dr. David Goldbloom, Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, spoke about the media’s portrayal of mental health during a Longwood’s Breakfast with the Chiefs forum December 12.
While billed as being about mental health, much of the discussion centered around whether media reporting of suicide prompts copycat actions.
The issue is particularly timely given the Vancouver School Board has challenged the media in its reporting on the death of Amanda Todd, the teen who took her life after experiencing on-line bullying. The Board has suggested the media follow guidelines established by the Canadian Psychiatric Association for reporting on suicide.
Picard challenged the science used by the CPA to establish the guidelines and suggested that the “hush hush” attitude towards suicide actually created more stigma.
To justify its guidelines, the CPA notes an Austrian study that linked copycat suicides to reporting on suicide deaths in the subway system. When the newspaper ended the series, so did the subway suicides. Picard says the overall suicide rate didn’t go up during that period, instead more chose to jump in front of the subway as the method of doing it.
“People jumping off bridges went down, subways went up.”
He also says that increased focus was put on suicide prevention in the subway system as a result of the articles, and the drop in subway suicides may have more to do with the suicide barriers that were later installed by the transit system.
The CPA also claims evidence that during a Detroit newspaper strike suicides in that city went down. Picard notes that the murder rate also went down.
“There’d be nothing in the paper in Detroit if they didn’t write about murders,” Picard said with a smile.
Goldbloom said the CPA’s guidelines reflected a time in which they were created, but were irrelevant when there are more than 100,000 on-line sites about suicide, many of them with explicit how-to instructions.
“CPA guidelines do reflect late 20th century thinking. They need to be seriously reconsidered,” he said.
Goldbloom took particular issue with such guidelines as to refrain from expressing “admiration of the deceased.” There is much to glorify in someone’s life, and “it shouldn’t be obliterated or obscured by death,” he said.
The Chair of the Mental Health Commission said he was disturbed by the straight line drawn between the recent prank call to a UK hospital and a nurses’ tragic death.
“It demeans everyone,” he said, given we don’t know the complete story.
Addressing the Amanda Todd death, Picard said they were unaware of any copycat suicides among teens.
“Does anybody believe teenagers read newspapers?” he asked.
Nor did copycat suicides increase upon the death of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain despite admiration of the musician by teens at the time, he said.
Goldbloom says the conspiracy of silence is reflected in the obituaries when a 35-year-old dies suddenly and there is no explanation and no corresponding charity.
While attitudes are changing, progress is very slow.
Most suicides don’t get coverage, says Picard, unless it is a person who is high-profile, there is a significant issue attached, or that the method they used was unusual.
Goldbloom says media stories about the mentally ill tend to focus on danger, violence and criminality, while less common are stories about treatment and recovery. Nor are the voices of experts and the mentally ill found in such stories.
Picard says media stories usually involve purpose, and as such, the sun rising is not a news story. Media that have focussed on good news stories are seldom viable. People don’t want to read them.
The Chair of the Mental Health Commission also took issue with the portrayal of psychiatrists, which he says are either portrayed as “Dr. Dippy, Dr. Evil, or Dr. Wonderful.” None of these stereotypes were true, but the purpose was to “defang, declaw and trivialize” the impact of mental illness.
That’s because “there is no greater threat to our personal identity than mental illness,” he says people believe “you are no longer you.”
Goldbloom also addressed the romantic idea that creativity and mental illness are linked. He said that “mental illness is a barrier to creativity for many.”
What are the CPA media guidelines for reporting suicide deaths?
The CPA says to avoid details of the method; using the word suicide in the headline; publishing photos of the deceased; portraying admiration of the deceased; portraying the suicide as unexplainable; repetitive or excessive coverage; front page coverage; exciting reporting; romanticizing the reasons for the suicide; or approving the suicide.
Instead the CPA expects media to convey alternatives to suicide; provide community resources; give examples of positive outcomes of a suicide crisis; to alert readers, viewers or listeners to the warning signs of suicide; or describe how to approach a suicidal person.
About 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year. There are more US soldiers who have died from suicide than the combined war deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked whether the Globe and Mail’s coverage of Tibetan protesters self-immolation violated such guidelines.
“What good could it do to not talk about it?” asked Picard, noting the Globe and Mail did not have that many readers in Tibet.