(Sunday’s column – forgot to post earlier)
There are some things we don’t know about suicide, and some that we know beyond all doubt. One is 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 each one is preventable. When a suicide happens in a small community, Gardai, priests and other leaders brace themselves and hope that it will be a one-off. Emotional funeral masses and highly charged eulogies for the dead can have the effect of romanticizing the dead and their manner of dying. It puts ideas into the heads of already distressed teenagers.
But masses are transitory and people talk themselves out of the immediate hysteria at wakes. Grief is a process and gradually, the dangerous phase and the risk to distressed adolescents fades.
Media reports of the suicide, especially written media don’t pass so quickly. Newspapers can be re-read and absorbed. Because these reports can influence the vulnerable and hurt the families, the Irish Association of Suicidology has issued guidelines to the media for the reporting of suicide.
They request that reports shouldn’t be put on the front page and photographs used very carefully. There should be no reference to the method used or any suggestion that there was a single cause for the suicide : such as poor exam results. Language is important too. For instance, terms like “successful” suicide or “unsuccessful attempts” shouldn’t be used. They also ask that phrases like “commit suicide” which carry the connotations of crime be avoided. I’m trying to keep the guidelines in mind when writing : though its strange how these phrases are so instinctive. Above all, the experts ask that suicide is not portrayed as some last heroic act. Glorifying suicide is deadly.
The aim is to keep factual and fictional accounts of suicide in the media low key and avoid adding to the emotional fever of a tragedy. I should stress that the experts aren’t asking for discussion about suicide to be suppressed. On the contrary they believe that suicide awareness is vital to its prevention. All they ask is that public reporting is contained in order to reduce imitation.
Sometimes journalists will weigh up two competing pressures : to report the story and to do so responsibly. It can be a fine line, but you have to be hardline about this : I don’t need to know certain aspects of a “newsworthy” suicide story but vulnerable people do need to be protected.
Nevertheless it was through news reports, both on RTE television and in all newspapers that I learned 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 television news mentioned that before killing himself, the boy left a message on the Bebo page of the first boy. The page had turned into a shrine and many friends had left messages to the dead boy.
My immediate thought was that those Bebo pages are a bad idea. They do everything that the suicide experts say contributes to copycat suicides. The dead person is not only romanticised but sensationalised. Over and again, their peers can re-read 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 being exposed to a seriously imbalanced view of suicide.
I also wondered if RTE was wise to even mention Bebo in the story. It’s bad enough that the page existed but why advertise it on the main evening news report? Unless a Bebo page has been marked “private” anyone can look at it.
Then last week, the same thing happened. A second suicide in the West and again we are told by RTE, but also through every newspaper report I read that Racheal Madden, who killed herself last week, had set up a Bebo tribute page to her brother Philip. He had killed himself 10 weeks previously.
There are two issues here. One is why journalists feel obliged to mention the Bebo pages in their reports and the second is why Bebo allows the pages to remain public.
The whole purpose of the guidelines is to keep suicide reports low key. Helping us visualise the heartbroken friend or sibling heroically writing emotional messages to the dead falls far outside the spirit of the recommendations. Advertising the existence of the tribute sites to other teenagers, 25% of whom have suicidal thoughts at some point, is unwise. It also implicitly suggests a single cause : grief : for the copycat death. This suggestion is also in breach of the expert advice. No one is asking for censorship here, but I don’t see the “news value” in one boy leaving a message on another boy’s Bebo page, both of whom killed themselves. It creates the precise aura of heroic action that should be avoided.
In previous days one might have left flowers at a grave with a card containing the same message. But the writing would have faded or the card kept by the family. Now its public and there for too many other at-risk adolescents to read. The 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 the page, its too easy to check it out, even if you never knew the people who have died. I checked some similar 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 could see was that the pages also include links to an official Samaritans page on Bebo. The Samaritans have been working with Bebo to try and create a safe environment online. It’s good but I don’t think its good enough. Bebo will remove a page at the request of a deceased’s next of kin or from the police. They should go further and have an automatic policy of removing tribute pages to suicide victims. Families are in no fit state to make decisions like this after a suicide. Waiting on them to intervene is a neat side-step by Bebo. If copycat suicides are to be prevented a conservative approach is unacceptable. The pages are dangerous and I have no idea why Bebo allow them to stay up, even though I’ve asked them about it twice in the last month.
If people with suicidal thoughts are surfing the internet, the sites they need to see are ones like www.spunout.ie, an excellent health website for teenagers, or others like www.aware.ie or www.samaritans.org. Bebo needs to step up and take down the tribute pages and responsible journalists should stop advertising their existence.