Suicide: Why and when we report

 

Alyssa Mosher - From the Editor (Tom Bateman/AQ)

I first heard about it from an AQ writer.

“I just wanted to give you the heads up,” he wrote. I get these types of letters a lot, story pitches The Aquinian often can’t pursue in the end.

And then there was this one.

“Jay Scott killed his gf and himself last week sometime.”

I had no idea who Jason “Jay” Scott was. The writer knew him from his first-year Aquinas class at St. Thomas University.

“We all knew he was depressed…but we shrugged it off.”

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. A former STU student was mentally ill and then killed his girlfriend and himself? How does that happen?

One of the editors said the headline wrote itself: “Missing the signs.” I knew we had to do a story about this; we had to address the bigger issue.

But how do you report on a murder-suicide without appearing sensational or exploitative?

It’s always difficult writing about mental illness. No matter how hard you try to air out issues in a non-judgmental way, the stigma attached to mental illness means most people affected by it don’t want to talk about their problems in public.

But there’s an argument for talking about it too: ignoring mental illness may only perpetuate that stigma.

And so I forwarded the writer’s email to our news editor.

***

According to newsroom convention,journalists don’t report on suicides, although this has become more controversial in recent years. Not only is it often difficult to get family and friends to confirm and talk about a loved one’s suicide, but there’s a justified fear of copycat suicides.

Reporting on suicide can cause more grief than it’s worth; the family doesn’t want their loved one to be remembered solely for the way he or she died. And they definitely don’t want a journalist asking why that person took his life when family members may not know themselves.

Suicide has a stigma too, no matter how many of us try to deny it.

Still, we can’t ignore it – and some people from the mental health community agree with me.

Mark Henick, STU’s students’ union president in 2009-10, has given lectures about his experience with depression and attempted suicide. He’s on the board of directors for the Mental Health Commission of Canada and is a past president of the New Brunswick division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

He’s tired of the stigma surrounding mental illness and wants people to hear his story. By talking about it, he feels we can prevent some suicides: we will tell people dealing with depression that they aren’t alone, that they can talk about it, and life can go on and get better.

So why did we decide to report on this story?

***

Some may accuse me of sensationalizing the death – and crime – of a former STU student who obviously needed help. Why did I have to put it on the front page of The Aquinian? Am I not blowing it out of proportion?

The short answer is “no.”

Fortunately, a story like this doesn’t affect the St. Thomas community very often. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore when a student dies after a night of drinking at a sports team rookie party, or when another kills someone and then himself. They are cautionary tales that need to be told, even when they make us feel uncomfortable.

Sometimes all the signs are there, but you never think it’ll go as far as it does.

Jason Scott was only 27. Some people on campus knew him, like the writer who emailed me. He called him his “buddy.”

But for all those who didn’t know Jay? It’s time.

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