The Vancouver School Board is calling on news organizations in British Columbia to follow the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s guidelines on the careful reporting of suicides. It says that media coverage of 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s suicide in October created a risk of a copycat effect among other teenagers.
The board would muzzle the media with Canadian guidelines that are desperately out of date.
Avoid “admiration of the deceased,” the guidelines say. Avoid photos of the deceased. Avoid the word “suicide” in the headline.
These guidelines would in effect shunt suicides to the corner of the cemetery, where they once used to be. Imagine not being able to speak with admiration of Amanda Todd or any other person, teen or adult, who committed suicide. Are those who take their own lives any less likely than, say, car accident victims or people with cancer, to have admirable qualities? Should their families and community be denied an accurate portrayal of who they were?
The silence around suicide and mental illness has been part of the problem. It has made it harder for individuals and families to seek help. Stigma, isolation and mental illness are a vicious circle.
But something remarkable has been happening while the Vancouver School Board and the Canadian Psychiatric Association remain mired in their 2008 guidelines. The taboos have been falling.
Two years ago, former National Hockey League player Luke Richardson and his wife, Stephanie, held a public memorial service for their 14-year-old daughter Daron, who had taken her life. The family broke all the guidelines. Their service, in Ottawa’s professional hockey arena, was an emotional event attended by 5,600 people, including NHL stars. Daron’s photo was front-and-centre. People spoke admiringly of her. She was beautiful, a talented hockey player, full of life. No copycat effect was reported.
Reporting on suicide has become a potent force for change. A cluster of suicides at Queen’s University led that school to propose a radically new approach this year to helping students with emotional difficulties. Queen’s has not suggested news coverage was to blame. Far from it. The university is making great efforts to reach young people who feel isolated and overwhelmed.
The Amanda Todd phenomenon tapped into the public yearning for open, frank discussion about the pain that families are unable to protect their children from. Perhaps never before has one teen suicide in this country been so talked about. Again, no copycat effect was reported.
Instead, an enormous amount of constructive discussion has taken place. B.C. Premier Christy Clark raised the issue of criminalizing cyberbullying because Amanda had been harassed by online predators. Her government held a conference on bullying. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the province’s Representative for Children and Youth, spoke out about the long waiting lists for children’s mental health services.
There’s more. A popular musician organized a campaign to make social media safer for young people. In London, Ont., police charged eight teenage girls with bullying-related offences. The RCMP received hundreds of tips about an online predator who harassed Amanda.
Parents of other bullying victims spoke publicly. School boards, principals and teachers around the country discussed how to deal with bullies. And no doubt in countless homes, parents tried to enter into the hearts and minds of their children on some very difficult issues.
It would be futile for the mainstream media to tiptoe around Amanda’s suicide when young people are informed by social media. Twenty million people watched the video made by Amanda in which she discussed her pain at being bullied over the Internet. Her face and her heartbreak are known everywhere.
Mainstream media generally adhere to internal policies similar to the more sensible U.S. guidelines drafted by Associated Press Managing Editors and more than 15 health groups. Those guidelines essentially seek not to glorify suicide – you can admire an individual without romanticizing how she died – or give information about the method or location.
No matter how well-intentioned the Vancouver School Board is, it is bitterly cruel to deny the individuality of people who commit suicide. Hiding their face from public view is destructive and shaming. Hiding any brave and noble qualities they may have had distorts the meaning of mental illness, and of their suicide.
An age-old silence is giving way to a determined search for answers. The momentum for openness is powerful and appears healthy. Silence and its inevitable counterpart, shame, have done incalculable damage, and the news media are reflecting a popular rebellion against them.