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Our View: Suicide – a difficult topic involving media coverage

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Suicide is a topic that comes up regularly and we at the Star-Observer always try to strike a balance between the reporting of a death by suicide and the feelings and wishes of the surviving family members.

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We have attended seminars and attempt to follow guidelines published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

There are a lot of factors that enter into the reporting of a suicide: the prominence of an individual, the manner of suicide -- be it a public event that requires the response of police, fire, etc.

Sometimes the first thought of survivors is to cover up the death of a loved one by suicide. Unfortunately, that does not always result in a desired outcome. Unacknowledged suicides within a family can create confusion and questions for survivors well into the future as they get unreliable details from unintended sources.

Even suicide deaths in a relatively private location are subject to information that leaks out, especially in this day and age.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention essentially sees some value in the reporting of deaths by suicide, but hopes that most reports emphasize the prevention of suicide and where readers can go for help. The organization sees the acknowledgement as part of the healing process.

The recent jumper from the Hudson bridge presented another confusing factor. Washington County would not release the name of the victim because the body had not yet been located. We see no value in this approach considering the high visibility of the incident and large response by authorities in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The bottom line is that there are numerous factors and issues when it comes to reporting suicides. None of them is easy or cut and dried.

Here are the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommendations for media language when reporting suicides:

--Whenever possible, it is preferable to avoid referring to suicide in the headline. Unless the suicide death took place in public, the cause of death should be reported in the body of the story and not in the headline.

--In deaths that will be covered nationally, such as of celebrities, or those apt to be covered locally, such as persons living in small towns, consider phrasing for headlines such as: “Marilyn Monroe dead at 36,” or “John Smith dead at 48.” Consideration of how they died could be reported in the body of the article.

--In the body of the story, it is preferable to describe the deceased as “having died by suicide,” rather than as “a suicide,” or having “committed suicide.” The latter two expressions reduce the person to the mode of death, or connote criminal or sinful behavior.

--Contrasting “suicide deaths” with “non-fatal attempts” is preferable to using terms such as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or “failed.”

At this newspaper, we try to limit suicide coverage to essential detail and endeavor to include information on suicide prevention resources in our reporting. There’s nothing glamorous, clever or endearing about suicide. And there’s no pleasure to be found in the pain of others. We never want to make a death by suicide look glamorous -- that sort of coverage could encourage “copycat” incidents.

In reality, people contemplating suicide are often suffering from some emotional disorder. The act of suicide is more the result of an illness than a rational act. Because of that, people should know where help is available.

Anyone concerned about themselves or a loved one may call the national suicide prevention lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Other resources include:

--American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, www.afsp.org.

--St. Croix County Department of Health & Human Services, (715) 246-6991.

--St. Croix County Battle Buddy Network, (715) 869-6127 (call or text).

--Veterans Crisis Line, (800) 273-8255.

--Hospital or Emergency Room.

--Local police / sheriff’s department, 911.

--Prevent Suicide Wisconsin, www.preventsuicidewi.org.

--NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), www.nami.org.

--SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), www.samhsa.gov.

--Mental Health America-Wisconsin, www.mhawisconsin.org.

--American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, www.afsp.org.

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