In October 1996, while walking to work in Edmonton, a man killed himself in front of me. It was a life-changing event for me, but when I tried to get the details about who this man was, I was frustrated there was no mention of his suicide in any of the local media. It was explained to me that media don't often report on suicides for a number of reasons -- most notably, concerns about the so-called contagion effect or copycat suicides.
But, what are the responsibilities of the media in reporting suicides? Given the high-profile death of Robin Williams and the heart-wrenching story today from Mike McIntyre about Ethan Williams, suicide has certainly been up for discussion, particularly in new social media, online and around the water cooler. What role can the media play in responsible coverage of suicide? Plenty, it seems.
Sometimes an individual may suddenly become calm and happy, signalling a decision has been made to take the final step.
Studies have indicated irresponsible media reporting can indeed lead to copycat deaths, particularly for young people. The so-called contagion effects, according to some studies, peaks at three days following a high-profile suicide and it can last longer. Obviously concerned about this, the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) has created a policy paper on media guidelines on reporting suicides aimed at promoting a non-reinforcing attitude toward suicide without increasing stigma.
It points, in part, to the need to avoid a discussion about the method of suicide or the idea that suicide is unexplainable and encourages journalists to provide information about treatment and community resources that are available. But it is really difficult for a journalist to balance the need to cover suicide responsibly while keeping up with audience demands.
In the guidelines, the CPA asks journalists to avoid providing stories that speak of the deceased with admiration and to avoid excessive or repetitive reporting. That's pretty hard to do given just how shocking Robin Williams's death was, and the subsequent clamour from his fans for information.
In Manitoba, in a four-year period between 2006 and 2011, there were almost 890 deaths by suicide. Overall, Canada's suicide rate is not relatively high compared to other countries, but there are significant pockets of concerns. First Nations, aboriginal and Inuit youth in Manitoba are the most vulnerable, especially young men.
The lack of facilities and community resources, particularly in the north, exacerbates the situation. As well, the middle-aged, and middle-aged men in particular, are also more likely to kill themselves.
Why? What are the reasons for this final step? It's complex and multifaceted.
As much as we would all like it to be a simple phenomenon we can easily recognize to prevent, it's just not that easy. Substance abuse, isolation, poverty, hopelessness and depression intertwine to potentially play a role.
Sometimes there are warning signs. Posted online at reasontolive.ca is a list of signs that someone is contemplating suicide. Included are suicidal ideation, a preoccupation with death and a change in sleeping patterns.
Sometimes an individual may suddenly become calm and happy, signalling a decision has been made to take the final step. We need to take these signs seriously and talk about them with the people affected. Perhaps by doing that, we can take suicide out of the closet and take away its shame.
I never got that chance in Edmonton in October 1996.
Shannon Sampert is the Winnipeg Free Press politics and perspectives editor.