The pain of suicide isn’t just a private affair

December 8, 2008

Suicide is a topic that the news media, so often accused of exploiting misery, handle with unique reserve.

Most newsrooms don’t cover suicides at all unless they happen in a public place or involve someone of public stature.  The standoffishness is odd, since suicides are often violent deaths  and, by law, are serious crimes — both categories that normally qualify as newsworthy.

Nevertheless, under the unwritten canons of U.S. journalism suicide is an intimately personal matter, and journalists steer clear of it. Coverage is avoided as intrusive and likely to cause needless torment to the survivors.

That diffidence feels right, but only if you don’t poke at it too hard. After all, what makes the pain associated with suicide so very different from the anguish of losing someone to street crime or a car wreck that the cause of death isn’t even noted publicly?

And how far should this reticence go? What about when the death is first described as suspicious —and makes the news — and later is reclassified as self-inflicted? Why does the family of a public figure deserve such drastically reduced privacy? And how do you run an obituary for a 19-year-old without giving a cause of death?

Still, though it’s not easy to justify the silent treatment is rarely criticized forthrightly. That’s why the recent column by Will Bunch, a veteran journalist who blogs for the Philadelphia Daily News, was a welcome change. Bunch’s column was pegged to the suicide last week of a promising young man who jumped from a high-rise hotel in central Philadelphia.

The victim’s family said that because he was an adult, at 23, they hadn’t been able to get him the treatment he needed for his depression and mental illness.  “Most victims who succumb die alone, and unpublicized,” Bunch writes, “and the cumulative result is a lack of public awareness over how serious this problem — which rips so many families apart — remains in America.”

How common is suicide? According to National Institute of Mental Health figures Bunch cites, in 2004 the United States had 32,439 suicides — double the number of murder victims. Yet did it ever occur to you that twice as many Americans die at their own hands than are killed by other people?

(While you’re at it, consider that 42,636 people died that year in car crashes and some 41,000 from breast cancer — and look at the mammoth publicity given both to road safety and preventive checkups.)

Plus, who knows how reliable those totals are. How many deliberate overdoses by dying people are classified as mishaps, how many single-vehicle “accidents” aren’t accidental, how much self-destructive behavior is ignored or misrepresented?

True, suicide is a private act, an expression of despair or anger, resignation or defiance. But taken in the aggregate, suicide is also a public health reality of vast social importance.

Yet it’s an almost invisible reality, and that’s partly because of the unwillingness of the news media to play their vital role in keeping society self-aware.

Journalists would like to think they don’t report suicides out of care and sensitivity. To be sure, their silence owes something to that.

But a less charitable explanation is that they don’t want to tangle with a dark taboo, under which suicide is both sinful and shameful and leaves a stain on the most bereaved, those who were closest to the deceased, who afterwards ask, as do others, how they could have failed so disastrously.

Those are powerful concerns, and it’s understandable that journalists steer clear of them. But they shouldn’t be acceded to blithely.

Like it or not, attention must be paid. This country has an aging population, including a huge post-war generation that will be facing end-of-life decisions under the cruel pressure of shrinking resources. It also has a plunging economy, and uncounted people in both the working and investing classes who are staring down the barrel of financial ruin, at a time when support services of all kinds are in tatters.

The notion that suicide is above all a private tragedy was never as wrong as it is now. It’s a problem that the society needs to address, and I’m afraid that won’t happen as long as the media indulge the cozy idea that their neglect is a kindness.

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