An Ottawa family’s approach this week toward their daughter’s suicide has refuelled an important debate about the wisdom of discussing youth suicide openly: Do you go public to raise awareness, or censor reports out of concern for copycat incidents?
The family of 14-year-old Daron Richardson grieved her suicide death publicly “to remove the stigma of pain and fear associated with suicide,” said Roshene Lawson, chaplain of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, at the teen’s public memorial on Wednesday.
Ms. Richardson, daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson, died at her home last Friday.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds and among 10- to 14-year-old girls, according to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada. In 2007, 508 youths committed suicide in Canada, with many more attempting it.
Experts say open discussion is healthy and can prevent suicides, but it must be done right – by media and parents in concert.
“You cannot tell a family how to open up or not open up, or reach out in a certain way: They should be allowed to do it in a way that is therapeutic for them and in a way that they feel is meaningful,” said Cheryl Vrkljan, Hamilton-based program consultant for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“Breaking the stigma surrounding suicide is a very lofty goal and one that starts with talking about it,” said Ms. Vrkljan, who educates professionals about suicide prevention. “However, we must be diligent about the reporting methods and be sensitive to their loss.”
That means skipping the visceral details, while including resources for readers who may be vulnerable.
Some studies insist a correlation exists between reports of suicides and the number of similar deaths that follow. Psychologists call it the “Werther effect” after Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero shoots himself in the head. Young men started copying the protagonist as the novel was released in Europe, prompting some countries to ban the book.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association suggests media reporting of suicides is linked to copycat suicides – among youth and also young adults under 24 years of age.
“Psychological autopsies (reconstruction of lifestyle, circumstances, behaviours and events that led to the death of the individual) suggest that indirect exposure to suicide from the media has been the source for contagion – the process in which one suicide brings about another” – according to the association’s online guide for reporters.
But the association's evidence for contagion is hardly scientific: It cites two newspaper strikes in Detroit and New York during which suicide rates decreased and then increased after the papers resumed publishing.
Clusters of suicides have followed celebrity deaths, The New Scientist reported last October, pointing to a 12-per-cent jump in suicides in the United States in the month following Marilyn Monroe's death in 1962. Kurt Cobain's suicide has also been romanticized, experts say.
But romanticized reports are on the extreme end of the spectrum. On the other end, “a tradition of silence perpetuates harmful myths and attitudes,” reads the website for the Canadian Children’s Rights Council. “It can also prevent people from talking openly about the pain they feel or the help they need.”
In recent years, a number of people have come out in support of the argument that it is better to be public about suicide, and not suppress it for fear of copycat contagion. They include Michael Wilson, former Canadian finance minister and former ambassador to Washington, who lost his son Cameron in 1995.
The Jack Project is another initiative to get the issue into the public forum. Named after an 18-year-old who committed suicide at Queen’s University, the project is an awareness-building foundation, advocating that the stigma around suicide be quashed and providing mental health support for 16- to 20-year-olds.
The council recommends parents talk non-judgmentally about suicide, saying a willingness to listen “can bring relief to someone who is feeling terribly isolated” rather than giving them “permission” to consider suicide as an option, as has been previously thought.
“A direct, straightforward response is most effective. Ask your child if he or she is contemplating suicide; no matter what you hear, try not to be judgmental, shocked or angry.”
By all accounts, Ms. Richardson herself was popular, athletic and a good student at Ashbury College, an elite independent school in Ottawa.
Psychologist Ian Manion is helping students at Ashbury College “make sense of it all.” He is also helping teachers and parents cope this week.
“Parents' main concern is, ‘How do I make sure that my child is okay?’ And teachers, who are on the front line, want to know how to support their students in this situation and longer-term,” said Dr. Manion, executive director of the Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health.
Dr. Manion says he hopes to identify other students who may be at risk.
“There's huge value in [the family's]going public in terms of making this an issue that we have to pay attention to. But now collectively, the community, we have to use this to create safety nets and ongoing conversations for young people.”
He adds: “If we never talk about it, then we contribute to it being a taboo. People can't disclose when they're experiencing severe distress.”
Editor's Note: Michael Wilson is a former ambassador to the United States. James Dean’s death was ruled a car accident. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.