Suicide rates and the media: chickens and eggs

The Globe and Mail this week has several linked articles on the debate about the effect of  media portrayals and reporting of suicide. This debate centres on two questions. 1) does media portrayal of suicides result in copycat attempts? 2) does media portrayal of suicide being the discussion into the open and assist potential victims and their families?

One article Youth suicide – on screen and the real thing – on the rise discusses a paper from the Annenberg Public Policy Centre.

To conduct the report, researchers looked at top-grossing films from 1950 to 2006 and created a scale measuring the scale of violence and the explicit nature of suicides portrayed in them. They found 855 suicide references in films….

Our earlier work confirmed that modeling of suicide in media can increase the incidence of suicide,” noted study lead author Patrick E. Jamieson. “While we cannot establish a causal connection here, it is interesting to note that the tripling of U.S. teen suicide since1960 coincided with this increase in movie suicide portrayal. We know as well that exposure to movie-portrayed suicide correlates with thinking that one cannot get effective treatment for mental health problems. There is something seriously wrong with a movie ratings system that attaches a PG-13 rating to a movie containing explicit, graphic modeling of suicide.”

This group is decidedly on the side of portrayals of suicide leading to more self-harm in young viewers. While there were some mentions of causes, they did not differentiate between portrayals of suicides that were obviously the result of mental illness (Girl, Interrupted) versus those initiated by demonic possession (The Grudge). I really don’t know how you could tease that information out. In fact given the ubiquity of movies on electronic media removing the viewing time from the original release date I am unsure any correlation, never mind causative factor of particular movies could be determined.

The discussion is certainly not new.

Some studies insist a correlation exists between reports of suicides and the number of similar deaths that follow. Psychologists call it the “Werther effect” after Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the hero shoots himself in the head. Young men started copying the protagonist as the novel was released in Europe, prompting some countries to ban the book.

Another article, first published in Nov 2010 A teen’s suicide rekindles debate over openness talks about news media reports of suicide. They bring up the cases of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain whose well publicized suicides engendered an increase in copycat deaths.

Clusters of suicides have followed celebrity deaths, The New Scientist reported last October, pointing to a 12-per-cent jump in suicides in the United States in the month following Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962. Kurt Cobain’s suicide has also been romanticized, experts say.

But romanticized reports are on the extreme end of the spectrum. On the other end, “a tradition of silence perpetuates harmful myths and attitudes,” reads the website for the Canadian Children’s Rights Council. “It can also prevent people from talking openly about the pain they feel or the help they need.”

This “tradition of silence” can hide the devastating effects of suicide on family members.

In recent years, a number of people have come out in support of the argument that it is better to be public about suicide, and not suppress it for fear of copycat contagion. They include Michael Wilson, former Canadian finance minister and former ambassador to Washington, who lost his son Cameron in 1995.

The Jack Project is another initiative to get the issue into the public forum. Named after an 18-year-old who committed suicide at Queen’s University, the project is an awareness-building foundation, advocating that the stigma around suicide be quashed and providing mental health support for 16- to 20-year-olds.

A third article from June 2011 17,500 Canadians were hospitalized for self-injury last year, CIHI report, highlights the importance of this discussion.

The title is self explanatory, but it certainly understates the severity of the problem.

But the number, 17,500, is probably a significant underestimate of the true extent of the problem, said David Goldbloom, senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

“On the one hand it’s an astonishing number, but on the other hand you have to realize it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Goldbloom said in an interview.

That’s because the data include only people who were treated in an emergency room and then admitted to hospitals overnight. Not included are people who do not seek treatment (which many so-called cutters do not) and suicides.

The article reports that in addition to those 17,500, over 3500 died from self harm in 2007. This number itself is an underestimation as it only includes those cases where deliberate self-harm is the cause of death. In discussions I have had with mental health professionals, an unknowable number deaths reported as accidental are actually suicides. These would include automobile crashes and falls that are not definitively jumps.

There is one point I disagree with the author of the piece.

The data do not allow researchers to distinguish between those who were trying to kill themselves and those who cut themselves as a result of mental illness.

Some generally accepted numbers state that while between 2-15% of people diagnosed with severe depression die by suicide, approximately 90% of suicides are committed by people with mental illness.  In other words, mental illness is the strongest predictor of suicide we have.

In my mind, the harm from publicized or fictionalized suicide is in the romanticization of the act. Emphasizing that suicides are primarily the result of mental illness would hopefully encourage those contemplating the act to seek treatment and to provide some comfort for those left behind.

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One Response to Suicide rates and the media: chickens and eggs

  1. jed says:

    Get fucked

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