May 1, 2009

Death by any other name

Posted in Military matters, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 9:57 am by Maggie Clark

Major Michelle Mendez, a Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan, was on her second tour in the region when found dead in her sleeping quarters at Kandahar Airfield. Hers marks the third death of a Canadian woman, and the 118th fallen Canadian, in Afghanistan since our involvement in the conflict began. The media has done an exemplary job of presenting Mendes in the respectful light afforded all Canadian soldiers lost in this conflict — and perhaps with extra care, too, because hers marks the second female fatality in as many weeks — but one word is pointedly absent from all talk of her “non-combat death”:

Suicide.

According to the Canadian military, an investigation into the circumstances of her death is still ongoing: evidently the possibility of her firearm accidentally discharging has not been entirely ruled out, though The Globe and Mail reports that “a Canadian government source said ‘all evidence points toward a self-inflicted gunshot wound.'”

The prominence of this story, and the blatancy of the aforementioned omission, have piqued my interest. The debate about whether or not to talk about suicide in newspapers, and in what ways, with which emphases, has been waged for decades. The argument ultimately centers on two points: the quest for greater public understanding, and the fear of inducing a copycat effect among readers. To this end, there are fierce defenders of different approaches — each backed by their own body of research and professional opinion. Last year The Newspaper Tree wrote an editorial responding to reader concerns over the term’s use in relation to one case: therein they noted that certain organizations of mental health professionals agreed it was better to tell readers the cause of death, but that the stories needed to be presented with the “valuable input of well-informed suicide-prevention specialists” in order to be effective. In that same year, Media Standards Trust published a firm condemnation of suicide stories, citing the high statistical correlation between published stories and copycat suicides.

My problem with the omission approach, however, is its selectivity: Suicides are deemed taboo, but the publishing of violent domestic deaths? murder-suicides? school shootings? isn’t — and all of these stories arguably pertain to people in even more disturbed mindsets (one, because I do not hold that everyone who commits suicide is “disturbed” in the sense of having lost their ability to reason; and two, because their acts take the lives of others, too). A recent Times article asked if the copycat effect was being felt here, too, pointing to the lone study that has been completed to date on the theme. The article also developed a short history of the copycat effect in media, which reads as follows:

The copycat theory was first conceived by a criminologist in 1912, after the London newspapers’ wall-to-wall coverage of the brutal crimes of Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s led to a wave of copycat rapes and murders throughout England. Since then, there has been much research into copycat events — mostly copycat suicides, which appear to be most common — but, taken together, the findings are inconclusive.

In a 2005 review of 105 previously published studies, Stack found that about 40% of the studies suggested an association between media coverage of suicide, particularly celebrity suicide, and suicide rates in the general public. He also found a dose-response effect: The more coverage of a suicide, the greater the number of copycat deaths. (See pictures of an exhibit of Columbine evidence.)

But 60% of past research found no such link, according to Stack’s study. He explains that the studies that were able to find associations were those that tended to involve celebrity death or heavy media coverage — factors that, unsurprisingly, tend to co-occur. “The stories that are most likely to have an impact are ones that concern entertainment and political celebrities. Coverage of these suicides is 5.2 times more likely to produce a copycat effect than coverage of ordinary people’s suicides,” Stack says. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death, for example, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 12%.

Journalists have a responsibility to the living. We have a responsibility to give readers the best means necessary to make informed decisions about the world around them. This also means doing the least amount of harm. In the case of suicide, this measure of harm is difficult to assess at the outset, as even the very language of the event is against us. To “commit suicide” bears with it the gravitas of an age when suicide was deemed a crime, not a tragedy — and not, in some cases, a release from untreatable pain. To “take one’s own life” is a step up — dramatic, but delicately put — though it is unclear if one term is preferable to the other in keeping the copycat effect to a minimum.

That effect itself also plagues me, because I have to wonder if it occurs in part because there isn’t enough reporting: if all suicides were listed as such (3,613 in Canada in 2004; 32,439 in the U.S. — roughly 10/100,000 for each population), and those suicides were contextualized by similar tallying of all deaths (drownings, the flu, and other causes of death with much higher population tolls) would that copycat effect drastically diminish over time?

I can only speculate. Meanwhile, another telling question has a more interesting answer: Can the news provide the requisite depth and breadth of coverage on mental health issues without the direct mention of suicide? In answer, I refer you to this piece from The Globe And Mail, which delicately tackles mental health in the Canadian military as a hot topic arising from Mendes’ “non-combat death,” while the Canadian Press approaches the issue from the vantage point of the female chaplain who presided over Mendes’ ramp ceremony.

There are, then, ways to nod to the issues surrounding suicide without using that word directly. But are they enough? Or does the omission of the word, in conjunction with so much open commentary about related issues, create a different reality — one in which suicide, lacking its public face, becomes at best a vague and theoretical matter?

These are difficult questions, and they grow more difficult when addressing systemic suicides — as exist among many Aboriginal communities in Canada, as well as among military personnel — and when suicide strikes the very young. To whom does the journalist owe her ultimate allegiance: the grief-stricken families, the immediately affected communities, or the public at large? How can we use the fact of suicide to better our understanding of this world we live in? Are we forever doomed to make things worse by the mere mention of suicide’s existence?

Two days ago I watched Rachel Getting Married, a film about a woman who comes home from rehab to take part in her sister’s wedding. A great many difficulties unfold as this woman struggles with guilt and self-hatred, coupled with depression and suicidal tendencies. Watching this film, I registered numerous “triggers” in myself, and cycled for a day and a half back into certain, terribly familiar mental routines. It was then, as I reminded myself that most people likely wouldn’t have had the same reaction to this stimulus, that it struck me: I will never be completely rid of these thoughts, these propensities to cycle between contentment and depression. Anything — a movie, a newspaper article, an off word from a close friend — might trigger them, and then it will be my responsibility to take control of these impulses: acknowledge them, experience them, and move past them.

I know, too, that eight percent of Canadians live with depression, and that at least 16 percent will experience a period of depression at some point in their life. I know I’m on the lucky side of this spectrum: I’ve learned how to counter the anxiety that often pushes depression to the brink, and after years of very extreme engagements with my mental health issues, they are manageable for me. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. I think to myself, what if someone in a much more agitated or suggestible state of mind watched this film instead — or others, with far more tragic endings? What if that was all it took, and the film pushed them to the brink?

Yes, a film or song or book could move someone to suicide. Most likely, it has already happened a lot. In short, anything could be a trigger; anything might be the last straw. But art, like the media, has as its higher purpose the construction of conversations about the world we live in, and how we live within it. So if there is a way to address suicide directly in the news — with the aid of suicide prevention experts; with a fully conveyed understanding of the context in which suicide operates; and with absolute respect for the families and friends each instance affects — I think we need to take it. To do otherwise, for me, is to leave each victim as alone in death as they surely felt in the lives they chose to end.

And honestly, that’s just not something I can live with.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] in war, as I referenced in relation to the late Canadian soldier, Major Michelle Mendez, dead of a self-inflicted injury late April — and as I find myself returning to in the case of American Sergeant John Russell, […]


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