Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » Why are mental health issues so taboo?


Our discussion leader closed our meeting Monday with a somber statistic: Twenty-four people committed suicide during the six hours we talked about media coverage of the issue.

During the day, we reviewed updated recommendations for reporting on suicide and talked about ways to share these best practices with journalists and others who might influence media coverage. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, organized the conference in conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Most people are unaware of the studies that have shown certain media coverage can lead to more suicides. That is why the experts gathered at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., to discuss ways to spread the word. I was invited as a board member of the Associated Press Managing Editors.

Dan Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center shared his research that showed most journalists were unaware of the recommendations. Annenberg also found most journalists said they don't want to cover suicide and do so only if:

-- It occurs in a public place or involves a public person.

-- It involves a murder-suicide.

-- It occurs in a prison or state institution.

To that list, he added suicides of those in the military, which has risen recently to the level of a public issue.

The list seemed about right to the journalists in the room. We don't want to step into what is generally regarded as a private issue. People often won't talk about suicide even to their friends and family, let alone to a reporter.

Nonetheless, every advocate in the room had horror stories to share about what they considered to be inappropriate coverage of suicide. Dan Reidenberg of SAVE talked about coverage of a death at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., that prompted eight others to attempt suicide there the next day. In Palo Alto, Calif., TV cameras went to the railroad track where four teens had committed suicide even though the sheriff warned such images could contribute to contagion, said Wylie Tene of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

All of the experts said they understood why such public events had to be reported. What they hoped for was more awareness by the journalists of the dangers presented by their coverage.

We also talked about the lack of reporting on suicide or mental health issues as an ongoing social issue. I asked what it would take for people to discuss mental health in the same way they talk now about cancer, which was once a taboo subject. Tene added he saw how the media coverage of AIDS had changed in three decades from a focus on blame and fear to stories about treatment and research.

This larger question seemed too big for our group to tackle in one day, but we focused on educating journalists as key to influencing society. Mark Kraham of the Radio Television Digital News Association, Kelly McBride of Poynter, Kate Black of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, Mindy Hutchison of the National Press Photographers Association and I suggested we could take the group's message to our organizations and to others such as the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

We liked the idea of creating a case study on a current, real-life news event so the recommendations could be put to the test. This method also would help journalists think through the issues rather than dismiss them as academic theory impractical for a 24/7 news cycle.

Another likely outcome is a new website that could serve as a guide for all on these issues. We all recognized the need for more education about a problem that has remained for too long in the shadows of society.