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Illness does not equal shame

Over the past few days I've been acting as an informal consultant to a newspaper editor friend who had to decide how to cover the suicide of a public figure. The death occurred at this deceased's home.

This morning, my friend e-mailed me a copy of a note he sent to a reader who criticized his handling of the suicide angle of the story.

Here is part of my reply to my friend:

The fact that people see suicide as a matter of shame, disgrace, or what have you speaks to the ignorance of our society in general about mental illness. If he had died of cancer, no one would have been angry at you for reporting that. Mental illness is nothing that should result in shame, stigma or stereotyping.

Maybe that states the obvious, but when you're an editor and are being buffeted by criticism about a sensitive story, sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the obvious.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
Great response. I don't know why there's such a stigma, but when reading the obituaries, you'll see all kinds of explanations about how a person died, but you never, ever read "suicide" in there. "Died suddenly" maybe, but I've never seen suicide.

Then there's the unwarranted attention focused on the family members who remain: "Why didn't you see this coming" or "How could you not know..."

Feb. 12th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
That's a good point about how the survivors have to deal with the second-guessers. Not to mention their asking themselves the same questions, which are terribly unfair.
Feb. 12th, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this.

When my friend took his life this summer, the local paper printed a short obituary the next day that said the coroner ruled the death a suicide. The backlash was unbelievable; his friends/family were furious that the paper had interfered on a "personal" matter. I didn't know where to stand on it. I don't think it should be an issue of shame...but perhaps seeing it in black and white is too jarring for the public to handle. I applaud your friend for trying to present a respectful and accurate angle.
Feb. 13th, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
It's a tricky line to walk in a news story, especially in a small town. My policy as an editor was that we didn't report suicides unless they involved public figures or suicides committed in public places. I doubt either was the case with your friend; I wouldn't have reported the cause of his death was suicide.

Feb. 13th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
It's a very interesting issue. Mental illness, or death from it, shouldn't carry or result in stigma. But it does. Even people who staunchly deny any such stigma exists, or deny that it should exist, would never dream of reporting on death from mental illness via suicide.

The problem I keep butting up against is that there is still such a stigma on mental illness, such an aura of mystery surrounding it. In this day and age, with modern medicine being what it is, there shouldn't be. We have the tools to peek into the brain and see (with relative accuracy) how it works. We can tell which brain chemicals and their associated imbalance causes depression, schizophrenia, and ADHD. We can do an MRI to tell whether the frontal lobe is differently sized or malformed, pointing to bipolar, MPD or any range of other personality disorders. Given these abilities, why do we still approach the brain like some mystical object, fearing its volatility to such a degree that requires society to marginalize those with mental illness, even though doing so to citizens with any other illness would be considered taboo? It's still exploited in the media, blamed for crimes of passion and used as a scapegoat and a crutch in situations where the mental state of the person is no more relevant than whether they have a cold or other physical affliction, and no one calls foul. Mental illness is the leprosy of the twenty-first century, and that really pushes my buttons.

Personally, should I take my own life, I would want my death laid out in plain language that way, but I would never impose my personal soapbox on anyone if I were reporting on someone else's self-inflicted demise. A very tricky issue.
Feb. 13th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
As a newsguy, I'm not impressed by the shallowness of the reporting I see on suicide cases. The stories are usually a collection of quotations from people who say things like "I never saw it coming" and "I can't understand why she/he did it." Of course they don't. This is news?

What we don't see the media doing is to report on mental health issues instead, either in the aftermath of tragic deaths or otherwise. This is one of the reasons that when I hear the words "liberal media," I scoff. If the media truly were liberal, it would be a lot more aggressive about highlighting the plight of the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the voiceless, the physically and mentally ill, etc.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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