By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor
I consider Friday’s episode of the Dr. Phil Show — titled “Teens Under Pressure” — a case study of sorts, for it shows that a constructive dialogue is occurring among suicide prevention experts, communities, and the media. The process that shaped the show’s content could be an indication that community-focused suicide prevention is gaining traction in America.
Here is what happened:
Enter the media. A series of suicide fatalities strikes a high school on the West Coast, and a flurry of media coverage follows. Then the double suicide of two high school girls in the East makes the news in a big way, locally and nationally. As one might expect, the Dr. Phil Show plans a television program on the topic of suicide.
Enter the community. When the show’s senior producer contacts the West Coast town to invite people to participate in the program, city officials respond enthusiastically — not about participating but about the possible causal link between media coverage of suicide and suicide contagion.
In a follow-up e-mail to Senior Producer Astra Austin, [a city official] representing “Project Safety Net,” said there are two primary concerns about the planned Dr. Phil program.
The first is that it could contribute to “suicide contagion” following the deaths of four Gunn students since last May, and the second is that the program could “perpetuate the myth” that stress and suicide are tightly connected.
“[This] is a community at high-risk for more suicides due to suicide contagion,” [he] said in the e-mail. “Our most vulnerable teens (those perhaps with previous attempts or who are under medical care) need our protection right now — and will for some time.”
“Please understand our reluctance to participate in the show should not suggest a reluctance to confront or deal with this issue. On the contrary, the … community is working together, tirelessly, publicly, and carefully on this issue.”
Enter the suicide prevention experts. The community’s communication with the TV producer amounts to a mini-workshop on suicide contagion, packed with a well-chosen array of top-quality, up-to-date information and resources, all based on the research and expertise of organizations such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the American Association of Suicidology.
The outcome: The content of Friday’s Dr. Phil Show clearly demonstrates that the producer and the others involved in creating the episode heard the community and tried to follow the guidelines provided by the suicide prevention experts. I have some concerns about several elements of the show (such as how people grieving from the fatalities are addressed), and the jury is certainly still out on the effects of national media coverage such as this on contagion. Those issues notwithstanding, I believe it is extremely important to affirm that this instance of the media’s coverage of suicide represents a rare collaboration among people working to cover an important news story, people in the field of suicide prevention, and people in a community that has been directly affected (I might say traumatized) by recent suicides.
[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/DrPhilEpisode .]
[Editor's note: In a SPNAC post last year, "Iraq Vet and Teen Say 'Thank You' to Lifeline via Avatars," it was mentioned that "Dr. Phil shared a suicide prevention message through his avatar on the Lifeline Gallery.]
Other related SPNAC posts:
- “Preventing Suicide by Train Gets Attention of Research” on February 10, 2010 at http://tinyurl.com/TrainResearch
- “Palo Alto Volunteers Act Boldly against Teen Suicides” on December 2, 2009 at http://tinyurl.com/PaloAltoSuicides
- All SPNAC posts in the “Media” category can be accessed using the “Themes” pulldown menu at the bottom of the page.