This week I wrote about the media’s reporting of suicide. It also caused me to reflect on my own family’s experience with it. This was first published on mindshare.
I was 17 when my grandfather died. My mother told me it was a heart attack. It was only a few days later my Aunt mistakenly told me the truth.
She rang to leave a message for my mother, Nonno may not be allowed a Catholic funeral because of the way he died she told me. “What do you mean – the way he died?” I asked. “You know, his suicide,” she replied.
No I didn’t know that and it wasn’t until it was all over I asked my mother for the truth. While it was important to know it, I still kept telling people it was a heart attack.
It was like the shame my mother was protecting me from, I was now trying to protect everyone else from.
When I started working in the media some years later I wanted to do a radio documentary on teenage suicide. I sought the advice of psychologists who said it was a bad idea. They argued it would create copycat suicides.
Then as I learnt more about the media I realised the huge sensitivity behind talking about it. When we cover this subject we do so without any real knowledge of the state of mind of our audience. However over recent years we have all agreed that not talking about suicide is not helping the situation, in fact it could be making it worse.
Then in 2011 the Australian Press Council released guidelines on reporting suicide. After years of discussion it was finally official – we could talk about it. But not in a careless free for all but in a carefully considered manner that did not create more harm. So adhere to some golden rules – you never report how a person died and why.
Recently the media had to deal with two high profile suicides within in a month. The first was TV presenter and model Charlotte Dawson, the other was designer L’Wren Scott. Sadly, some news reports forgot the golden rules and detailed how these women committed suicide, speculating on reasons why.
In only three short years the media had became sloppy and reckless. It was as though the guidelines were never written. Sure we need to look at the who, what, why, when, where, and how. But not always, and especially not now.
When I saw this I became so disappointed. Why do Editors have to be so lackadaisical? Why do they think we need to know the details?
After my Nonno died I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to be openly angry, sad, nostalgic. I wanted to ask questions and search for answers. Instead for years I had to be quiet.
While we don’t have to be quiet any more, we do still need to be careful.