MURDER/SUICIDES: Time to review reporting (or not reporting) of tragic incidents in the current context

Published: December 21, 2012

MANPREET GREWAL
VANCOUVER DESI

When it comes to reporting suicides, mental health professionals are worried about the ‘Werther Effect.’ Submitted photo

In the early 1990s, I was still relatively new to Canada when a huge story broke out in Abbotsford about a sting operation carried out by police where a cop dressed up as a prostitute had lured many johns.

The police released the list of johns to the media. Editors of the local papers went back and forth on whether the list of men caught should be named and consequently be shamed in the paper. Men with wives and children, in respectable positions and of different backgrounds had all been caught up in the net. A significant number of these individuals were from the South Asian descent.

The mainstream papers ultimately decided not to print the list but a South Asian publication at the time from Surrey published the names. Those copies exchanged hands very fast in Abbotsford. Even folks who were totally against the papers publishing the list were curious to find out who was on the list.

A few days later, word spread through the community that one of the South Asian men whose name had been published committed suicide. I thought that story would make headlines because of the controversy that the issue had generated but it never even appeared in any of the papers. I talked to one of my reporter friends at the local paper and she said that as a policy they never covered suicide. I couldn’t fathom it. I thought it was a story of extreme significance because it would inform the public debate about the merits or dangers of the johns names being made public.

I learnt better over the years that there is a solid rationale behind not reporting suicides. Mental health professionals fear copycat behaviour amongst those who may be going through a somewhat similar set of emotions. They’re worried about what they call the Werther Effect.

According to Wikipedia, one of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide arose from Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Goethe’s novel was published in 1774 and not long after young men began to mimic the character Werther by dressing in yellow pants and blue jackets.

A new trend also emerged from the book causing it to be banned in numerous areas. In the novel, Werther commits suicide with a pistol after he fails to get the girl he desires. Many men replicated this trend in an act of hopelessness. Hence the term “Werther Effect,” used to designate copycat suicides.

In cases of celebrities whose suicides have inspired suicide clusters, Marilyn Monroe’s name comes up. Her death (which was deemed as a possible suicide) was followed by an increase of 200 more suicides than average for that month.

Fast forward things to the 21st century where the ban of a book is not going to fix the problem. Although no responsible media outlet would want to point a path of self emulation to anyone, isn’t it time to review the reporting of the situation in the current context?

The first factor informing the discussion is that mainstream media no longer holds the sole control to spread or contain information to the masses. In the age of social media one kid sitting in front of a computer can post information and it can go viral within minutes.

Secondly, suicides are no longer just about someone taking their own life. Individuals are taking a lot of other lives before killing themselves. Whether it is one or two individuals storming a school or a public place or a story of international terrorist attacks, the last few years have been full of stories of mass murder/suicides. That in itself raises fears of copycat crimes but how can those kinds of incidents be swept under the carpet?

Thirdly we are a highly resourced society and we should be using all our information sources and media, including social media, to increase awareness about mental health issues. Perhaps for each murder/suicide story that is covered in the media, there should be less sensationalization of the actual event but more emphasis placed on running expert opinions and articles on identifying, diagnosing and treating mental health issues and preventing copycat crimes. Mental health professionals can be given additional resources to have online programs for suicide watch and crisis intervention. There will be more captive audiences at that time. Perhaps that will make it safer to discuss suicide and prevention in an open format.

Because, despite sound rationale, not reporting may simply not be an option in this day and age.

Manpreet Grewal is a freelance writer based in Abbotsford. She can be emailed at manpreetgrewal@shaw.ca

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