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A screen-grab from one of the videos in the It Gets Better series. (It Gets Better)
A screen-grab from one of the videos in the It Gets Better series. (It Gets Better)

media

How the taboo against reporting on suicide met its end Add to ...

When Gerry Nott took over as editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen two years ago, one of his unconventional moves was to send reporters to a rural community to find out why two teenagers had killed themselves.

The reporters gingerly knocked on each family's door, hoping to find answers, and one family agreed to be interviewed. The paper published a long piece detailing the teen’s mostly happy life, complete with wrenching anecdotes from friends, students and McDonald’s co-workers.

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Rich with details, the story broke most of the industry's taboos about reporting on suicide. The paper used the teenager's name; it used the word “suicide” in prominent display type. The story said there were as many as 1,500 people at the teen's funeral, and made passing reference to the fact that he had attended the other teen's funeral only days before ending his own life.

The headline was, “A young life, a senseless end.”

Mr. Nott argues that he made his decision on principle. “With such a significant number of deaths in terms of young people, if this were anything but suicide, we'd write about it incessantly,” he says. “If there were a preponderance of deaths related to mountain bikes, we'd write stories about it daily, and I take the position that suicide is no different than that. Unless it's on the table respectfully, it's not going to be addressed by the mental-health system or any of the oversight agencies.”

Canadian newsrooms have been averse to covering suicides for decades, deferring to medical studies that suggest publicizing suicide results is “contagion” – the idea that stories about young people killing themselves lead to more young people killing themselves and should be avoided.

But in the past few years journalists have taken their cues from celebrities and parents-turned-advocates who have created a cottage industry out of suicide awareness.

In the United States, newspaper columnist Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better campaign to try to curtail suicides among young gays by openly talking about the temptation to end a life and highlighting reasons to live. The video-based initiative was founded in September, 2010, after a number of young people killed themselves and left messages behind saying they could not deal with the bullying brought on by their sexuality.

In Ontario, parents have created foundations in their children's names to raise both awareness and money to battle what they perceive to be an epidemic – even though the number of suicides per year has remained largely unchanged for decades.

Meanwhile, Canadian news organizations and politicians have seized on a storyline that links bullying with teen suicide. Ontario has introduced legislation to curtail bullying, with Premier Dalton McGuinty going so far as to film his own It Gets Better video for the province's beleaguered, bullied teens.

The editors who have decided to probe deeper into the lives of young suicides argue that their decisions are made on principle. They also are reacting to social media – where online memorials pop up instantly and friends and family members talk openly about suicide whether the mainstream media are doing it or not.

Whatever is driving the new ethos – journalistic ideals, new technology, a bit of both – some mental-health professionals argue it's dangerous.

In Ottawa, Mr. Nott's decision to pay attention to local suicides proved prescient. Two high-profile deaths in the city – the daughter of an Ottawa Senators assistant coach and the son of a city councillor – have put the issue on the Citizen's front page on a regular basis. The paper, in turn, has focused on “service” stories, the kind that tell people how to get help.

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that suicide has accounted for 2 per cent of annual deaths in Canada since the late 1970s and the group most at risk is the 15-to-19-year-old population.

Although rates of adolescent suicide in Canada have declined since the early 1980s, it remains the second-leading cause of death among teenagers, after car accidents. In 2007, the most recent year with available data, 218 people 10 to 19 years old committed suicide.

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