Suicide in the News: How Should We React?
Earlier this summer, the world lost two more celebrities to suicide. In the wake of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, public reaction has been what you would expect, especially on social media: outpourings of grief, disappointment and confusion. Nationwide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number was shared and “liked” and people called the deaths “preventable tragedies.”
On one hand, engaging directly with this topic in a public forum is a step in the right direction toward reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide. On the other hand, there are more productive ways of responding when suicide shows up in the news.
The most common sentiment I see on social media after a suicide is something along the lines of, “If you are struggling with depression, get help.” There is no doubt that those statements are well-intentioned, but they open up issues of agency and accountability. Placing all the responsibility on the person with depression to save him or herself—when depression makes it incredibly difficult to accomplish anything productive—creates another layer of stress to the illness. And the language around “get help” is often vague and ill-defined. How and from whom? If I call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, what do I even say?
The notion that suicides are preventable is also troubling. We’d rarely call a cancer death “preventable,” unless the patient opted for no treatment or ignored the advice of her doctor; that death is simply the unfortunate end of a serious illness. Calling suicide “preventable,” then, shifts agency (and, by extension, blame) onto the person who completes the suicide. This doesn’t afford mental illness the same respect and gravity associated with the suffering caused by physical illness.
What Can We Do?
Rather than targeting our social media posts in the wake of celebrity suicides at those who are experiencing suicidal ideation, perhaps we should target would-be allies and empower them with the knowledge and tools to make a difference, should a loved one need their help someday. Here are some tips we might share with those around us:
- One of the best things we can do to help a person who is suicidal is listen. Asking questions and encouraging them to open up can be helpful, as suicidal ideation is frequently characterized by isolation and a feeling of loneliness or detachment. Re-establishing a sense of connection is often an important first step in cutting through the darkness.
- SuicideLine Victoria, an agency out of Australia, provides some excellent sample statements on their website for those assisting someone who is suicidal or recovering from a suicide attempt:
- “I’m sorry you’ve been feeling so awful.”
- “I’m here for you. Remember that you can always talk to me if you need to.”
- “I want to help you. Tell me what I can do to support you.”
What these statements all have in common, aside from being caring, is that they incorporate both “I” and “you,” which emphasizes the helping person’s role as an active participant in the healing process.
- In addition to sharing knowledge, we can encourage those around us to get up and get involved. Allies can vote or campaign for politicians who promise better access to mental health care for all who need it. Another option is donating to, or volunteering for, organizations that help those struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation.
- Finally, remember that just as your loved one isn’t alone, neither are you. Be sure you’re seeing professionals as appropriate whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed.
When public figures die by suicide, in addition to sharing our memories and grief, we should also look to open up a dialogue about how we can effect change. This takes more than urging individuals with depression to “get help” on social media. As suicide has become a public health issue, it has implications for all of us. We should change the way we think and speak about suicide to make it easier to connect with those who need help. We all have a role to play in eradicating stigma through our words and actions, both online and off.
Lindsey Dietrich received her MA in English from Boston College. She works in the publishing industry and lives in Grafton, Massachusetts with her husband and son
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