March 31, 2008

Publication: Sunday Times

Date: Sunday, March 30, 2008 Page: 15

Author: Sarah Carey

Headline: Suicide: handle it with care

There are some things we don't know about suicide, and some that we know beyond all doubt, one being that suicide is contagious. Research has conclusively shown that it can cluster, especially in the case of people aged under 24. Copycats account for 6% of all suicides. It's not a big number, but every one of them is preventable. When a suicide happens in a small town, gardai, priests and other community leaders brace themselves and hope that it will be a one-off. Emotional funeral masses and eulogies can have the effect of romanticising the dead person and their manner of dying. They put ideas into the heads of already distressed teenagers; they can make death seem glamorous. Such grief is transitory. The dangerous phase, and the risk to adolescent friends of the deceased, fade within a few weeks. But the effect of media reports of the suicide, especially written media, don't pass so quickly.

Newspapers can be reread and absorbed. Because these reports can have undue influence on the vulnerable, the Irish Association of Suicidology has proposed a set of guidelines to the media. The association requests that reports about suicides not be put on the front page of newspapers and that photographs be used carefully. There should be no reference to the method of suicide used or any suggestion that there was a single cause for it perhaps poor exam results. Terms such as "successful" suicide bid or "unsuccessful attempts" shouldn't be used.

The specialists involved with the association have also asked that the phrase "commit suicide", which carries the connotation of crime, be avoided. I'm trying to keep the guidelines in mind even as I write, though it's strange how instinctively one uses these phrases. Above all, the association asks that suicide not be portrayed as some last heroic act glorifying suicide is deadly. Media accounts of suicide should be low-key and avoid adding to the emotional fever, to reduce the chances of imitation.

Journalists have to weigh up two competing pressures to report the story and to do it responsibly. It can be a fine line to tread, but you have to be practical about it: as a reader, I don't need to know every aspect of a "newsworthy" suicide story, and vulnerable people need to be protected. Nevertheless, it was through news reports, both on RTE Television and in newspapers, that I learnt of one disturbing factor in imitation suicides. Just over a month ago, two boys died by suicide in. Westport. In reporting the second death, RTE mentioned that before killing himself, the second boy had left a message on the first boy's Bebo page. The page then turned into a virtual shrine, with many friends leaving messages for the dead boy. My immediate thought was that those Bebo pages are a bad idea. They do everything that experts say contributes to copycat suicides. The dead person is romanticised and sensationalised. Their peers read and reread the tributes and emotional messages, which are addressed directly to the dead person as if they were alive.

Day after day teenagers with a high threshold of vulnerability are exposed to a seriously imbalanced view of suicide. Bad enough that these pages exist, but should they be advertised by RTE on its main evening news bulletin? Last week, another one was. There was a suicide case in the west of Ireland and again we were told by RTE and newspapers that the victim, Racheal Madden, had set up a Bebo tribute page to her brother Philip, who had killed himself 10 weeks previously. There are two issues here. Why do journalists feel obliged to mention the Bebo pages in their reports, and why does Bebo allow such pages to remain public? The media have been asked to keep suicide reports low-key. Helping us visualise the heartbroken friend or sibling writing emotional messages to the dead falls outside the spirit of the recommendations. Advertising the existence of tribute sites to other teenagers, 25% of whom apparently have suicidal thoughts at some point, is unwise. It also implicitly suggests a single cause grief for the copycat death. This contradicts the guidelines drawn up by the Irish Association of Suicidology.

Nobody is asking for the media to censor itself, but I don't see the news value in one boy leaving a message on another boy's Bebo page, both boys having killed themselves. It creates an aura of heroic action that should be avoided. Before Bebo, we left flowers at a grave with cards containing similar messages. But the writing faded, or the card was kept in private by the family. Now it's public and there are too many other at-risk adolescents reading it. An emotional message on a social networking site isn't a safe channel to express grief its consequences go far beyond that. When people learn of the existence of such Bebo pages, it is all too easy for them to check them out, even if they didn't know the victim. I studied some of these pages last week, just to get a feel for what's on them. They have love poems and monologues to the dead and can only have the consequence of inflaming, rather than calming, distressed teenagers. The only positive aspect I can see is that the pages also include links to an official Bebo Samaritans page. The Samaritans has been working with the social networking site to create a safe environment online, although I don't think that's enough. Bebo will only remove a page at the request of the police or a deceased's next-of-kin.

I believe they should go further, and have an automatic policy of removing tribute pages to suicide victims families are usually in no fit state to make such decisions after a suicide, and waiting for their intervention sidesteps the issue. If copycat suicides are to be prevented, a conservative approach won't do. The pages are dangerous and it's not clear why Bebo allows them to stay up. Meanwhile, journalists should stop advertising their existence. If people with suicidal thoughts are surfing the internet, the sites they need to see are ones such as — an excellent health website for teenagers — or Emotional eulogies can romanticise the dead and make death seem glamorous