Star Gazette plans change in how it reports mental health and suicide callsEditor's note: This column was written in January 2012 and published at that time. It is linked here because of recent events. For many years, this newspaper has held a simple policy in regard to suicides: if it happens in public, we write about it. If it happens in private, we do not write about it.
By: Chad Richardson, The Hastings Star-Gazette
For many years, this newspaper has held a simple policy in regard to suicides: if it happens in public, we write about it. If it happens in private, we do not write about it.
The policy was set up with the idea that, if we were to write about suicides here, we could be giving someone out there ideas. By writing about it, we decided long ago, we could increase the frequency of suicides in Hastings.
That is, to a certain extent, an outdated policy. It’s like saying that if we wrote more about cancer, there would be more people in Hastings who would be diagnosed with the disease.
We’ve come to learn a lot about mental illness over the years. Those who live with a mental illness are enduring a real illness. Believe it or not, they can’t just “snap out of it.” As the relative of a Hastings man who took his life a few years ago put it, that’s like asking someone with a heart disease to just will their heart to improve. We’d never do that, right? So why would we, as a society, expect someone with a mental illness to just will their brain to get better?
Every week we review the police reports in Hastings, and many weeks in the past year we have steered clear of the mental health topic. Those were private matters and they weren’t criminal, we said.
That was short-sighted on our part. Essentially, we were sweeping the problem under the rug.
This week we changed that policy. We will write about mental health issues in the police report – again, the issues are not criminal, but police are often called to help mediate the situations and in some cases they transport the affected person for evaluation. It’s a significant use of police resources, and the public ought to know how their department is spending its time.
Please know we will not be publishing the names of those who are affected. Nor will we publish addresses.
The greater good in this, we hope, is that by telling you about these instances you’ll see how prevalent it is. You will have greater awareness about the ongoing struggles taking place in your community. Once you are armed with that information, we hope you’ll do what you can to help your fellow residents.
Our guess is that if the people who need this care feel like they are the only ones with the problem, they could feel ashamed. They may refuse to be treated. They could become even more isolated, and that would likely just exacerbate the problem.
The same can likely be said for the family members of these residents. They may, sadly enough, be ashamed by the problem.
Our first step in all of this is to simply get the word out that these instances are occurring. If Hastings police are called to a suicide, we are going to report that. We will not name the person who died. We will not give a specific address, either. But we will tell you about it. We will treat cases of mental illness the same way.
Again, let me be clear here:?We will not be publishing names. We will not be publishing addresses. We would simply tell you that police responded to a mental health crisis call, or a suicide call.
We do understand that across the world there have been copycat effects when the media publishes details about suicides.
According to a lengthy study prepared by the University of Hong Kong, the media can play a role.
“Research studies have indicated the correlation between media reports and the subsequent suicide cases. The more the media mention, on front pages or intensively dramatized, the higher suicide rate to follow.
“Suicidal or mentally distressed people are more sensitive to suicide reporting. How detailed the story is can have a great impact on these people, as they may have a tendency to copy or follow the act.
“Researchers indicated a higher suicide rate when more suicide news was seen. In 1984, a U.S. study revealed that after a celebrity's death by suicide, which was followed by intensive reports and news headlines, there was a remarkable increase in the suicide rate. When the media repeatedly mentioned certain suicide method, similar incidents will follow in increased numbers.”
That said, some newspapers across the world have sensationalized suicides with awful images of people in the act. We would not do that, obviously. Our report would simply be a few lines of text on Page 4A.
Do you agree with this policy? Or disagree with it? I’d like to hear from you. Either way I'd like to hear from you.
I can be reached by calling 651-319-4500 or by email at email@example.com.