Franklin James Cook

News Report of 9-Year-Old’s Suicide Deserves Mention

In Media, Prevention on January 27, 2010 at 4:31 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

We live in a world where the suicide of a nine-year-old in a public elementary school, as occurred in Texas last week, is going to attract media attention. So — without getting into what I believe is the media’s responsibility to cover stories about suicide taking into account resources such as “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals” and “Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media” — I thought it might be useful to comment on a noteworthy story by reporter Alex Branch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (although it does “violate” the guidelines in several ways) with a focus on what I think it “gets right” in its coverage:

(1) The story does not normalize suicide in young children:

Experts say that of all age groups, suicides are rarest in children younger than 10 in the United States. Typically, five to 10 suicides nationwide are reported in any given year, according to the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C.

The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reported 33 suicides among 5- to 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2006. Two were reported in Texas.

“They are infrequent,” said Dr. Alex Crosby, medical epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “There is such a small number that there’s little research into that age group.”

This is in contrast with a great deal of media coverage about suicide, which often begins with alarming statements and statistics about the prevalence of suicide. In fact, even prevention organizations often emphasize dire statistics in their promotional materials (for instance, statements such as “every 18 minutes in the U.S. someone dies by suicide” are nearly ubiquitous in press releases from the prevention industry).

What is meant by “normalizing” a behavior is presenting data in a way that makes it seem as if the behavior is more frequent or more common that it really is (in the case of suicide, even though it happens too often and is an alarming phenomenon, it is a relatively rare event overall).

The challenge, of course, is finding a way to say what the problem is (“32,000 people a year die by suicide in the United States”) while at the same time pointing out that suicide is not at all normal (“people who feel suicidal are in crisis and need help, and people who get help can be prevented from dying by suicide”).

(2) The story avoids attributing the suicide to a simple cause.

“I’ve been asked about bullying,” [a police spokesman] said. “Rumors have popped up. But, as of this point, I don’t have any confirmation of that.”

Bullying, loss of a loved one, and divorce are factors that have been blamed for other cases of child suicide.

In most cases, the children had displayed fairly significant troubles in the past, said Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the [American Association of Suicidology].

The idea of “fairly significant troubles” and the inclusion of a number of possible precipitating factors counters the tendency of media reports to point to a single, easily identifiable, proximal cause for a person killing himself or herself. Oversimplifying suicide in that way distorts the reality that suicide is complex and multi-causal.

And I must say how exemplary it seems to me for a media outlet to be OK about simply not knowing what caused something. In this case, nobody knows what caused the little boy to kill himself, and the newspaper didn’t fill in that painful void with whatever blather some “talking head” had to say about it.

(3) The story makes a hypothetical link between this particular suicide and depression but at the same time avoids jumping to a conclusion or categorizing all suicides as being caused by depression.

A misperception is that young children do not experience depression. About 5 percent of children and adolescents suffer from it, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry …

Symptoms are often mistaken for adolescent moodiness, Berman said. Unlike in older people, depression in children is usually expressed in actions, rather than feelings …

It is important to remember, however, that in 40 percent of suicides, the victims do not exhibit symptoms of depression, he said.

Including the caveat about 40 percent of suicides not being associated with depression avoids emphasizing mental illness itself as “a single, easily identifiable, proximal cause” of suicide. In my opinion, treating mental illness in that way creates similar problems that oversimplifying suicide in other ways creates. The proliferation, for example, of the idea that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness fails to account for the complexity of suicidal behavior no less than other narrowly circumscribed interpretations do.

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/Report9YearOld .]

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