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Public editor: Coverage should treat suicide as a public health issue

Visitors look at a photograph of Oscar-winning actor and renowned comedian Robin Williams displayed at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington August 12, 2014.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Every suicide is a tragedy. It shows how hard life can be for some people, how much they struggle with finding joy and happiness and how unrelenting mental illness can be. And it causes a great deal of pain to many people who loved that person and tried to help.

In the case of Robin Williams's suicide, it is a very wide tragedy because so many people loved his humour and sense of fun, but also a very wide opportunity for the media to talk about this public health issue.

So, a big part of the media coverage is not just about the loss of Mr. Williams, but about how depression and mental illness are often silent diseases that for years no one ever discussed.

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Those discussions need to be focused on the larger issue of how we as a society can help people with mental illness, in part by talking about it and being more sensitive to that silent killer.

On Tuesday, I sent a note to all Globe and Mail staff reminding them of the guidelines on covering suicide. By far the best guideline for media was introduced this year by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.

The guideline includes a foreword by Globe health columnist André Picard and it talks about the stigma of mental illness. "Stigma has no respect for facts. That, if nothing else, makes it our business as journalists to try to set the record straight."

How we talk about it is important. For example, the focus should be on the tragedy and not the details of the act. In online coverage yesterday, The Globe's articles said Mr. Williams died by asphyxia due to hanging. In my view, that was as much as should have been said about his death. The how is not important.

The Globe showed restraint because the Marin County sheriff's office provided excessive details on the suicide in a press conference that was livestreamed on many television stations. Even though it was public information, that did not mean that The Globe should have followed in lockstep with those details.

More importantly, the Globe's coverage included an article by Marsha Lederman exploring the depression and sadness behind the mask of humour and levity. And André Picard wrote about how Mr. Williams's death has given a voice to the silent killer.

In my note, I reminded staff that coverage should treat suicide as a public health issue with a focus on the larger picture.

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On a small point, I have urged reporters not to use the word "commit" in reference to a suicide. Until 1974, suicide was a criminal offence in Canada. Although commit can mean a number of things, it has been associated with doing wrong as in committing a grave error or committing a criminal act such as murder or fraud. We don't normally associate the word "commit" with a mental health tragedy.

Instead, it is better to use words that are open and clear, as in she killed herself or took her life or he died by suicide.

We have also referred to another set of guidelines written by mental health advocates and Associated Press managing editors in the United States. It, too, includes excellent advice.

I heard yesterday from a reader on this topic. She thanked The Globe for exploring the topic of suicide and depression "so we can all develop, grown and learn from this catastrophic illness."

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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