Franklin James Cook

Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Community, Prevention Experts Influence “Dr. Phil” Episode

In Media, Opinion, Prevention on March 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Three gears working together

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:

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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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Ban of “60 Minutes” Stirs Debate on Media-Suicide Link

In Media, Prevention on August 16, 2009 at 9:28 am

LATEST UPDATE: In an Aug. 24 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Kellee Nolan reports that the Nine Network stopped pressing its objections to the ban of the “60 Minutes” segment.

The Supreme Court of Victoria … heard the Nine Network had agreed never to broadcast the segment, which was about four students from the same Geelong high school who committed suicide in a six-month period this year. The court heard Nine had agreed not to broadcast “on ’60 Minutes’ or any other program … the segment ‘Searching for Answers,’ or any part of it.”

Beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett, who had initiated the original injunction preventing the show from being broadcast, said

“We just don’t ever want to see programs that provide some solace, that may provide some acceptability to ending a life, particularly for those who at the time of receiving that information, may be at risk.”

Nine Network stood by its story, but issued a statement that said, “t was pretty clear there was not going to be a consensus relating to this story in the short term, so we felt it was best not to further contest the matter.”

ORIGINAL STORY:
Two articles from The Age update the story about a court injunction against the Australian broadcast by TV news magazine 60 Minutes, of a program about teen suicide at a high school in Geelong.

One article announces that “the broadcaster [Channel Nine] had reached agreement with the State Government not to air the program or any part of it until the matter returned to court on August 21.”

[Channel] Nine sought the adjournment so that the Government and anti-depression organisation beyondblue could consider the proposed segment.

In the other article, reporter Michael Bachelard explains that Beyond Blue chairman Jeff “Kennett began his crusade against the publication of stories about suicide long before he took 60 Minutes to the Supreme Court last week to prevent it from airing a report on a cluster of teen deaths at a Geelong high school.”

Kennett’s objection are grounded in the theory that there is a relationship between media coverage about suicide and suicide contagion.

When covering suicides, Australia’s media are governed by a voluntary code of practice, the first question of which is whether the story should run at all. The answer is most often “No.”

Mr Kennett’s action in the Geelong case was informed by clear advice from adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, and he was swiftly joined by the State Government in enforcing an injunction on Channel Nine.

The confrontation between the producers of the 60 Minutes segment, titled “Searching for Answers,” and the parties who have taken court action to halt its broadcast, both Beyond Blue and the Victorian Education Department has highlighted the debate over media coverage of suicide.

60 Minutes declined to comment for this article, citing the injunction. But in an earlier comment, a spokesman said that the program had the support of some of the families involved, and that it constituted “careful and appropriate treatment,” which “offers hope to young people in very difficult circumstances.”

Fairfax radio’s Derryn Hinch said this week that the program should have gone to air because, “talking about it, getting kids to watch and to listen, is much better than banning a TV show and making it all sound mysterious and illicit and maybe — to a gullible teenage mind — something rebellious and enticing.”

That approach finds some support in the British media code. Their guidelines, like Australia’s, encourage sensitivity and warn against sensational treatment, but they add that “censorship or misinformation about suicide is unhelpful,” and say that “media professionals should not seek to hide the facts.”

Kennett says his opposition to airing the program follows Carr-Gregg’s about suicide contagion and the media. Carr-Gregg had been interviewed previously in an article in The Sunday Age:

“I do not mind there being factual reporting of an incident. [But when] there are then programs … that increase the risk of there being repeat episodes, it is those programs that I call into question.”

A particular concern was that 60 Minutes was saying that a 17-year-old boy, “who obviously featured in the program,” would be available online to answer viewers’ questions. “That is not an expert … you just can’t do that. On a subject like that, it’s manifestly not something you can do,” Dr Carr-Gregg said.

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/60MinutesBan .]
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Teen Suicide Show Pulled over Contagion Fear, Injunction

In Media, Prevention on August 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

A blockbuster television news program, CBS’s 60 Minutes, has been compelled by an organization battling depressive illness, Beyond Blue, to pull a segment that was supposed to have aired Sunday night in Australia. The segment covered the suicide of four teens at the same high school in Geelong, Australia in the past six months, and the organization’s objection to it on concerns about the show contributing to suicide contagion.

According to a story in The Australian,

Beyond Blue chairman Jeff Kennett won an eleventh-hour injunction in the Victorian Supreme Court to block the current affairs program “60 Minutes” from airing a segment on teen suicide at a Geelong high school.

In his affidavit … Mr. Kennett said he was concerned the potential for another suicide at the Geelong high school — where four teenagers have taken their own lives in the past six months — was very high …

In a statement released by 60 Minutes this morning [Monday], the program’s executive producer Hamish Thomson said: “We are extremely disappointed that we were not able to broadcast the story, but we of course fully understand suicide is a deeply sensitive and difficult issue.”

Mr. Thomson said 60 Minutes continued to believe the story should be told.

“60 Minutes has the support of the families involved and has consulted with mental health experts in producing the story,” he said. “We believe our careful and appropriate treatment handles the issue of suicide sensitively, and offers hope to young people in very difficult circumstances.”

The matter is listed to be heard again on Wednesday morning when 60 Minutes will apply to have the injunction lifted.

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

Related SPNAC post: “Ban of ’60 Minutes’ Stirs Debate on Media-Suicide Link” at http://tinyurl.com/60MinutesBan

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Parents’ Haunting Film about Son’s Suicide Is Also Healing

In Grief, Media on August 1, 2009 at 9:29 am
090801_DanaEvan-Perry

Evan gives his mom, Dana Perry, a kiss on the cheek, when he was a toddler at the beach.

UPDATED Aug. 4: Boy Interrupted, a documentary film by Dana Perry about the death by suicide of her son, Evan, premiered on HBO on Aug. 3 and will be rebroadcast throughout the month. SPNAC readers may refer to the list of show times from HBO for a viewing time in their locale.

There is a superb review — by Penelope Andrew, Women Film Critics Circle — of Boy Interrupted, which was published yesterday on Huffington Post. Andrew says the film “captures a bit of magic.”

When authenticity, generosity, traumatic memory, recorded history, and creativity collide, an effective documentary such as Boy Interrupted emerges. The musical score strikes notes that enhance the mood of this film that masterfully frames the devastated faces of Evan’s family and friends and makes sure we will not forget him and the health-care enigma and challenge he represents.

POSTED AUG. 3: Perry is a filmmaker, and her husband, Hart, is a cinematographer, so they used the medium they knew to tell the story of Evan’s life, and of their loss and their grief. Dana says, in a Wall Street Journal video interview before the film’s release at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in January,

“I don’t really want to tell this story, but I have to tell this story, and I’ll use the means that I know. I mean, who would film there own son’s funeral? … What normal, sane person would allow this to happen? Not only allow it to happen but make it happpen? And all I can say to that is, ‘Grief deranges one.'”

“The process of this grief is something like taking a teaspoon to an ocean of tears: You can spoon a little, but if you keep going at it, you might actually make a dent in it … I would never say, though, that that process is done or will be done. I don’t think it will.”

A review in Variety after the film debuted at Sundance calls it “beautifully put together”:

Mournful, pained and beautifully put together, “Boy Interrupted” is about a mentally ill 15-year-old who committed suicide, and the [film] could only have been made by his parents. [It] is, in fact, such an immersion in pain that had anyone other than Dana and Hart Perry cut this elegiac little gem, those filmmakers would be accused of grief exploitation. HBO has the film, and that’s probably best: Perhaps families will watch together and share a good cry.

Here is an excerpt from Sundance’s description of the film:

What defines this film as a remarkably unique and truth-telling achievement is the way it explores how filmmaking can create closure for its creators as well as its audience. Dana Perry has gathered home movies, photographs, and a variety of different documents to tell the story of her son, Evan: his bipolar illness, his life, and his death, and their impact on those who loved him the most. She interviews his siblings and friends, his doctors and his teachers, and in the process, she chronicles a harrowing and difficult journey. The camera provides insight and revelation, and yet “Boy Interrupted” is a film that is also full of despair. The film’s saving grace is that it functions, in the final analysis, as therapy for both its viewers and its subjects at a most fundamental level.

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

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“Cyberbullying not epidemic … not killing our children”

In Media, Policy on July 15, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Larry Magid, a journalist whose roles include Technology Analyst for CBS News, has weighed in with a thought-provoking blog post on legislation that has come to the foreground recently to counter cyberbullying. Here’s his opening paragraph:

The first things you need to know about cyberbullying are that it’s not an epidemic and it’s not killing our children. Yes, it’s probably one of the more widespread youth risks on the Internet and yes there are some well publicized cases of cyberbullying victims who have committed suicide, but let’s look at this in context.

On the topic of cyberbullying “killing our children,” Magid writes that “bullying has always been a problem among adolescents and, sadly, so has suicide.”

In the few known cases of suicide after cyberbullying, there are other contributing factors. That’s not to diminish the tragedy or suggest that the cyberbullying didn’t play a role but — as with all online youth risk — we need to look at what else was going on in the child’s life. Even when a suicide or other tragic event doesn’t occur, cyberbullying is often accompanied by a pattern of offline bullying and sometimes there are other issues including long-term depression, problems at home, and self-esteem issues.

His argument against classifying cyberbullying as an epidemic is that the numbers describing “the extent of the problem [are] all over the map.”

I’ve seen some reports claim that up to 80 percent of online youth have experienced cyberbullying, while two national studies have put the percentage closer to one-third … A recent study by Cox Communications came up with lower numbers, finding that approximately 19 percent of teens say they’ve been cyberbullied online or via text message and 10 percent say they’ve cyberbullied someone else.

His post, titled “How To Stop Cyberbullying” was published yesterday on Magid’s blog at safekids.com, a site he founded to promote Internet safety. He offers these solutions to the problem of cyberbullying:

  1. Identify the children doing the bullying, then work with them on their behavior and on “their needs — including problems at home.”
  2. Deliver to children who bully “educational programs that stress ethics and cyber citizenship.”
  3. Teach “kids … what to do if they are victims of bullying.” He offers, for instance, these safety tips.

Magid advises that “we need to be careful about any legislation that outlaws cyberbullying.” Using the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (H.R. 1966) as his example, he repeats UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s criticism of the bill, which, in brief, is that the behavior it criminalizes is stated in such an overly broad way that a lot of behavior that is not targeted by the law would also be criminalized.

There is a bill before Congress, as well — the School and Family Education about the Internet Act” (S. 1047) — that emphasizes the educational approach to the cyberbullying problem that Magid favors.

[The abridged URL for this post is  bit.ly/bullyingnot .]

Related SPNAC posts:

“Children’s Deaths Cause Anti-Bullying Outcry” at http://tinyurl.com/ChildrensDeaths
“Father Crusades against Cyberbullying after Son’s Suicide” at http://tinyurl.com/FatherCrusades
“Cyberlaws Are Coming into Play around Internet Safety” at http://tinyurl.com/NetSafetyLaws
“Obama Urged To Take the Lead on Internet Safety” at http://tinyurl.com/ObamaInternet
“Verdict Shows Parents, Internet Should Both Protect Kids” at http://tinyurl.com/ProtectChildren

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“Weekly Spark” Shares News One Might Otherwise Miss

In Advocacy, Media, Mental Illness on July 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Today’s “Weekly Spark,” a newsletter from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), pointed to an article that I missed in my review of suicide-related news last week: “Chasse case helps spur creation of mental health crisis center.” The story is important both because of the value of mental health crisis services such as the one established in Portland and because of the role of advocacy in bringing about change in society’s response to mental illness. Here’s the story summary, from the “Weekly Spark”:

A new 16-bed mental health crisis center in Northeast Portland will accept people who are suffering a mental health crisis such as suicidal or violent thoughts, hallucinations or severe anxiety. The center will serve as an alternative to jail or the emergency room for people who are in danger of harming themselves or others, and will provide up to 10 days of assessment and treatment. The center was created to improve the county’s response to people in mental health crisis. The issue was brought to the forefront by the 2006 death, in the back of a patrol car, of a man with schizophrenia.

Kudos to SPRC staff for its newsletter, which has led the way in bringing authoritative news to both the specialist and the general reader on a wide range of topics related to suicide prevention. If you’re interested, please sign up for SPRC’s mailing list.

— FJC

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

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Judge Overturns Verdict in Cyber-Harrassment Case

In Grief, Media, Prevention on July 5, 2009 at 8:59 am

Lori Drew — the Missouri woman who created an online hoax that triggered a series of events ending in the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier — will be acquitted of the charges for which she was previously found guilty. The Los Angeles Times reports that

The decision by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu, which will not become final until he files a written ruling, was a blow to prosecutors who had hoped to send the message that cyber-bullying is a crime. Wu had repeatedly delayed sentencing to consider a defense motion to dismiss the entire case.

U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien, whose office prosecuted the woman, said after the decision was announced that the law needed to be strengthened. “We call it cyber-bullying and we don’t have a law to address it,” he said.

A Wired News article by John Abell summarizes the point of view of those who support the judge’s decision:

Drew could be ostracized, she can be sued for damages in a civil proceeding, she can become a pariah. I would not like to know her. I am not a lawyer, but for the state to deny her liberty for lying when she created an account on a social network would be excessive and chilling and imperil hundreds of thousands of people who, while doing the TOS [terms of service] version of jaywalking, set themselves up for selective prosecution if some chain of evidence or events can associate them to someone else’s tragedy …

Wu was correct to conclude that conviction would have made unelected legislators of the people who create the terms of service for any site, conditions almost nobody reads and which are chiefly aimed at indemnifying the owners for the behavior of their customers and only consequentially enabling nice sandbox play.

“It basically leaves it up to a website owner to determine what is a crime,” Wu said on Thursday. “And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract.”

MSNBC’s “Today Show” on Friday features an interview with Tina Meier:

“As Megan’s mom, I wanted to see her go to jail, because I think it needed to set a precedent. I think it needed to let people know: You get on the computer, you use it as a weapon to hurt, to harm, to harass people, this is not something that people can just walk away from.”

Still, Meier said, her daughter’s death focused attention on cyber-bullying and led to several state laws and a proposed federal law to address the growing problem. In that sense, she said, there is some justice for her tragedy.

“For me, because we’ve continued to be able to get the word out and hopefully share the story and hopefully make changes in households, making teens maybe think once or twice, absolutely I think there is justice in Megan’s name.”

For important background about children and bullying on the Internet, see the previous SPNAC post “Cyberlaws Are Coming into Play around Internet Safety,” which features an insightful discussion among experts on cybersafety for children, “Protecting Kids in the Digital Age,” a roundtable from the 2008 Tech Policy Summit.

Also see the related SPNAC post “Verdict Shows Parents, Internet Should Both Protect Kids.”

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

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Media Coverage of Canandaigua Suicide Misses Key Truths

In Media, Prevention on May 27, 2009 at 7:01 am

By Elana Premack Sandler, LCSW, MPH

On May 5, 17-year-old Thomas Kane died by suicide at his school, Canandaigua Academy in upstate New York. Police investigation following the death showed that Kane had at the ready in his locker a shotgun, extra ammunition, and two Molotov cocktails, and in his car he had liquid accelerant and three lighters.If Kane’s original intentions weren’t made abundantly clear by what police discovered in his possession, he also kept a journal in which he laid out his plans to kill others in his school.

The reason I–a Bostonian by way of being a Washingtonian with few connections to teens living in upstate New York–know these details of a young man’s life and the tragedy that occurred in his school is because they were reported by local Canandaigua media outlets. The media covered Kane’s death in depth, probably because it occurred in a public place and definitely because of the information about the police investigation that came out within days of his suicide.

Explicit journal excerpts were published in one newspaper. While initially one television station chose not to use Kane’s name in their reports , once the information about his possible plans to kill others in his school was released, the station identified Kane.

At first, I questioned why media would report such details. Why would journal excerpts be included in news articles? Isn’t it sensationalizing a tragic death to draw attention to the intimate details of a young man’s psyche? But then I realized that I wanted to capture those same details as I told the story to you, for those very details are part of what makes Kane’s story newsworthy. However, if there could be such a thing as “just another school shooter,” a phrase Kane himself used in his journal, Kane certainly did not fit that description. Ultimately, he decided not to kill anyone but himself. That fact highlights a sad trend in media coverage: Whenever there is a school shooting, the significance of the suicide is lost because of the drama of the murders, yet the part of the story about the person’s suicide deserves attention.

In an age when schools are reeling from previously unimaginable violence that has occurred in their classrooms and cafeterias, troubled teenagers make news. Those of us who work in violence and suicide prevention are at times looking for the same elusive clues as PTA presidents and so-called soccer moms, seeking a better understanding of what drives young people to take their own lives and, along the way, the lives of others.

In this instance, the possibility of homicide being involved eclipsed Kane’s personal story, and he was represented as “just another school shooter” without even being one, his story destined to be told in the way it didn’t end instead of in the way it did.

The complexity of suicide is not a story many media venture to cover. But because of the public safety implications and their duty to cover news that matters, media have an obligation to cover stories that ended the way Kane’s could have. If it had been a school shooting, we would all still be asking how it could have been prevented, but the focus would be almost entirely on the school shooting and hardly at all on the suicide. That focus has caused us to miss the point about suicide itself in stories such as this one. [continued … read the full article here]

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

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Two Lives Saved through Facebook, Twitter Communications

In Intervention, Media, Prevention on April 5, 2009 at 9:53 am

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

The dangerous nature of some Internet communication has become part of the fabric of our society, including when it comes to suicide, as in the recent cases of Megan Meier, a victim of cyberstalking by an adult, and Abraham Briggs, who killed himself with a webcam audience watching.

It is heartening, as a counterpoint, to share two stories from this week’s news in which the Internet served as a medium for preventiing suicide. I want to highlight the phrase “served as a medium,” for the Internet itself is just a tube through which communication flows, and it is what people do with the communication that matters. These two stories are really not so much about the Internet as they are about what people must do to prevent suicide, regardless of the “channel” through which a person thinking about suicide communicates his or her dilemma to us.

The first story, from reporter Patrick Sawer in the London Telegraph, is about a “depressed 16-year-old boy … on the outskirts of Oxford, England … [who] had been chatting to a girl in Maryland, USA, on the social networking website [Facebook] when he told her he was about to kill himself.”

Fearing for his life, the American girl alerted her mother, who then sparked a string of emergency messages between Maryland Police, the White House in Washington, the British Embassy in Washington, Scotland Yard and finally Thames Valley Police.

The story is extraordinary because of the great distance involved, both geographically and coincidentally (not to mention that a host of agencies, several at the highest levels, were constructively involved), but in fact, the girl simply followed steps broadly recommended in suicide prevention training: Take any mention of suicide seriously–treating it as a potential life-or-death matter– and inform a person who can help about the danger.

If everyone did that–and if every agency contacted responded as affirmatively as even the White House and the British Embassy did in this case–thousands of lives would be saved.

Oxfordshire police commander Chief Supt Brendan O’Dowda praised those on both sides of the Atlantic who were involved in the rescue, [saying] “When it did find its way to Thames Valley Police, it would have been quite easy for any number of people to decide there wasn’t enough information. We really didn’t have much to go on. It was just scant information.”

“But due to the tenacity and professionalism of a number of people, we managed to pin down a number of addresses, then went through the painful and laborious process of visiting the addresses to find the lad. It took up time and effort but it was time and effort absolutely well spent.”

The second story is about a rescue initiated after a Twitter communication threatening suicide was sent to actress Demi Moore. According to a report from Selena Hernandez of CBS affiliate KTVT in Dallas-Fort Worth, a man in Frisco, Texas, and a friend of his in Idaho took the action necessary to save a life:

Daniel Morton … said he happened to see the disturbing “tweet” on Demi Moore’s page. “I noticed it looked like a good train of texts, tweets talking about how she wanted to kill herself. Demi responded, ‘I hope this is not a joke.’ At that point I started looking into this woman’s site to see if it was a joke or not.”

He contacted another online Twitter friend, Kim Aiton, In Idaho. Together, the two would combine their resources to help a woman they never met, one who’s name they didn’t even know … Morton said he spent an hour on the phone with the San Jose Police Department, until Aiton found the woman’s real name. “She found the woman’s true identity, gave it to me, I gave it to the police. They pulled it up on the computer — bam they matched the photo to the driver’s license. They knew it was her, so they sent the ‘lights and sirens’ out there to get her.”

San Jose Police found the 48-year-old woman unharmed, some two hours after her initial posting. The department said it was overwhelmed with calls from all over the country — and world — all responding to Moore’s tweet.

Same response, same outcome: Suicide is taken seriously. People and helpers work together to reach out to someone who might be in danger. A life is saved.

Linguist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote “the medium is the message,” which is certainly important to understand if one is studying communications theory. But in the person-to-person interactions that make up our daily lives, especially when someone in pain reaches out for help, the message is the message, and when it comes to suicide, however the is message is conveyed, the human-to-human response ought to be: “Suicide? What can I do to keep you safe? Let’s get the help we need. Let’s all do this together.”

[The abridged URL for this post is  http://tinyurl.com/2LivesSaved .]

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The Last Word on the Financial Crisis and Suicide Prevention

In Media, Prevention on January 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

econsuicide1

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Other than the Nov. 24, 2008, post “SPRC Gives Prevention Workers Info on Economy, Suicide,” I have intentionally avoided coverage of suicide and the financial crisis because I fear that the present–and rather intense–media focus on the “connection” between the two might contribute to suicide contagion. The Nov. 24 post introduced a user-friendly SPRC document that helps explain “the relationship between the economy, unemployment, and suicide” and is organized into “talking points [that] summarize what is known about these complex relationships.”

For essential information on preventing contagion in a community, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s document “CDC Recommendations for a Community Plan for the Prevention and Containment of Suicide Clusters.”

Those recommendations are succinctly summarized–from the perspective of schools but also covering an entire community’s response–in a presentation by Frank Zenere of the National Emergency Assistance Team of the National Association of School Psychologists, titled “Tragic Connections: Identification And Assessment Of Youth Suicide Contagion.”

A seminal document on the relationship between media coverage and suicide is “Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media.” (This is an excellent resource, but it is a bit dated, mainly because it lacks references to online media)

Those recommendations are summarized in a publication from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC): “At-a-Glance: Safe Reporting on Suicide.”

The three largest nonprofit organizations focusing on suicide prevention in the United States have all weighed in with authoritative (based on science and facts) statements about suicide and the economy. Here they are:

  • Statement by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS)
  • Statement by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
  • A list of “things you can do to help” from the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA), available on its homepage (below the fold under the heading “Listen and Act to Prevent Suicide During the Economic Crisis”)

Some of the best recent media pieces about suicide and the economic downturn (in my opinion … others can suggest additional candidates in “Comments,” below) are the International Herald Tribune’sEconomic collapse brings out resilience in most, experts say,” USA Today’sEconomy prompts more calls to suicide hotlines,”  the Toronto Star’s The myth of post-crash pavement suicides,” the Montreal Gazette’sEconomic crisis takes toll on mental health” (which even mentions protective factors), and a column by David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times’Social services see recession’s toll.” (Please note that these articles are not referenced because they adhere strictly to the media guidelines–very little media coverage does that, especially when it comes to brief descriptions of method–but rather because they come close to following the recommendations and they cover their subject both artfully and helpfully.)

And the last word is this, from today’s editorial in McCook Daily Gazette, a small-town newspaper in Nebraska:

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” While Cain and God both knew the answer — Cain had already killed his brother Abel — not all of us have answered the question for ourselves.

As economic conditions deteriorate, more and more of us are needing help from our friends and neighbors — and more and more of us are being called upon to provide that help.

We don’t know all of the details of the tragic deaths of a California family of seven, but it appears to be a murder-suicide involving a man worried about his job at a medical center … In a completely different situation, a 93-year-old World War II veteran in Michigan apparently died of hypothermia after the city limited his electricity for unpaid utility bills …

As we read about thousands of jobs disappearing each week, we can be sure variations of the two tragedies recounted above will be repeated all too often.

Certainly the elderly man would have been saved, had someone known the heat in his home was completely shut off. Not all of the details are known in the death of the California family, but intervention of some type at the right time could surely have made a difference.

Whatever the situation, it behooves all of us to keep tabs on our friends and neighbors to make sure they’re coping with the challenges life throws at them.

Even more important is the need for those of us who encounter tough times, whatever the cause, to not hesitate to seek help when we need it.

[The abridged URL for this post is  bit.ly/suicidefinancial .]

[Editor’s note: Please share this story widely and, if you are so inclined, whenever you read something online about the connection between suicide and the financial crisis, please see if there is a “comments” section associated with it and post a comment, referring to the URL  bit.ly/suicidefinancial .]

[Related SPNAC post:] “SPRC Gives Prevention Workers Info on Economy, Suicide

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“Prayers for Bobby” Shines Spotlight on Suicide of Gay Youth

In Grief, Media, Stigma on January 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm
weaver-kelley1

Sigourney Weaver and Ryan Kelley embrace in their roles as mother and son.

Staff writer David Wiegand, in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, gives the upcoming TV movie Prayers for Bobby, starring Sigourney Weaver, a bit of criticism for “awkward dialogue and merely adequate direction,” but in the end, he praises the film for the emotional weight of its acting and its message.

If “Prayers for Bobby,” airing Saturday [9 p.m. ET/PT] and based on the book by the late Leroy Aarons, is a tearjerker, it’s not only because it’s a Lifetime original film, and that’s what the network does, but because the true story of Bobby Griffith is tragic.

The film is about a gay teenager whose mother (Mary Griffith, played by Weaver) is a fundamentalist Christian who tries to “cure” him, which contributes to the young man’s suicide. The tragedy results in the mother coming to a new understanding about homosexuality, including speaking out about her experience. For more information about the movie, see the Internet Movie Database plot summary.

In a Boston Herald review, Mark Perigard writes that Weaver gives “one heartrending performance as a mother who realizes her rejection of her gay son led to his suicide.”

In the hands of a lesser actress, Mary would come off as an unhinged religious fanatic. As Weaver captures her, she’s a devoted parent confronted by something alien and frightening to her core beliefs … Weaver’s work should be remembered come Emmy time.

SPNAC readers may view a trailer of Prayers for Bobby, and MyLifetime’s page about the movie includes additional video, photos, interviews, and background material.

[UPDATE 01/22/2009] CBS’s Early Show today featured a TV interview by Maggie Rodriguez with Sigourney Weaver, in which the actress talks about meeting the real-life Mary:

“I have to say that I never felt judgmental of Mary. She meant the best for her son. That’s what’s so frightening … As far as she was concerned, this was a choice. And I think she didn’t understand that this was part of who Bobby was. She thought he was choosing a life, and she readily admits that she was incredibly ignorant.”

Also in today’s news, TV writer Chuck Barney of the  Contra Costa Times interviews Mary in “the Walnut Creek home [Bobby] left behind.”

Mary, 74, is sitting in the kitchen of a ranch-style home that is packed with cherished knickknacks, family photos, angel figurines and grade-school artwork provided by her grandchildren.

“I didn’t listen to my conscience. I was entrenched,” Mary recalls. “But I don’t live with the guilt anymore because I realized I was truly ignorant. It wasn’t something I did out of malice. So I can forgive myself for that.”

Following Bobby’s death, Mary, believing she was to blame, began an extraordinary journey of redemption and transformation. She became a highly visible spokeswoman for the Diablo Valley chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG]. She also appeared frequently on television talk shows, campaigning for public school counseling to support gay teenagers.

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

[Related SPNAC post: “Trevor Project Honors Actress for Inspiring LGBTQ Youth” ]

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“Seven Pounds” Is Guilty of Irresponsibility with Suicide

In Media, Prevention on December 23, 2008 at 10:12 am

[Editor’s note: The main premise of this post, written by SPNAC’s editor, is based on its author’s opinion.]

Although Christopher Orr in a review in the New Republic is quasi-evasive in addressing the particulars because, as he puts it, “much as I’d like to spoil it, I won’t,” there is no question that his criticism of Seven Pounds centers on its ending, in which Smith’s character dies by suicide, a trope which Orr calls “morally grotesque.” His verdict:

Seven Pounds is … a dour, morally beclouded film that confuses generosity and grief, self-abnegation and self-annihilation. Yes, it comes prettily wrapped as the package of holiday uplift it fatuously imagines itself to be. But this is a present best left unopened.

Since I’m not a movie reviewer whose ethic forbids him from “giving away” an ending, I’ll share what a blogger at Paste Magazine writes about it: Will Smith’s character, Ben, announces his suicide in the opening scene then …

… tracks down seven strangers in need: Woody Harrelson plays a blind pianist who gets his eyes, “Ben” gives his lungs to his ailing brother … he gives a single mother his house, some other woman gets his liver, some dude on dialysis takes his kidney, another guy gets his bone marrow, and he gives Rosario Dawson, the movie’s love interest with congestive heart failure, his heart (barf!) … Anyway, yes, the film’s title refers to the “seven pounds” of flesh that Ben gives to [Rosario Dawson’s character].

I’m in good company when it comes to not feeling remorseful for that “spoiler,” including New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, who writes

I don’t see how any review could really spoil what may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made. I would tell you to go out and see it for yourself, but you might take that as a recommendation rather than a plea for corroboration.

Scott continues with his indictment, calling Seven Pounds “a lugubrious exercise in spiritual bushwa”:

For all its pious, earnest air, Seven Pounds cries out to be remade as an Asian horror movie, so that the deep, creepy grotesqueness of its governing premise might be allowed to flourish, rather than to fester beneath the surface.

Roger Friedman, writing for Fox News, calls Seven Pounds “just gruesome, a horrid misfire … a relentlessly depressing, strange piece of cinema that really has no business being released at Christmas, if ever,” and there are plenty of other high-profile reviews that peg the movie for what it is (perhaps, most succinctly, Scott Foundas in the Village Voice who calls it “a morbid morality play”), but in the end, the reviewer who really says what needs to be said on behalf of the suicide prevention community is, perhaps ironically, “Movie Mom“:

It is not the obviousness and phoniness and manipulation that bothers me as much as the clueless and even condescending immorality of it. No one thinks that suicide, even to benefit others, is a legitimately redemptive act, and it is contemptible and irresponsible of the movie to suggest otherwise.

One wonders, with all that is known about the deadly relationship between  media depictions of suicide and actual suicidal behavior, whether Columbia Pictures or Will Smith even considered the possibility that their film might harm members of its paying audience who might be at risk. Simply but powerfully stated, in a 2005 literature review published in Academic Psychiatry,

Data support an increased number of suicides resulting from media accounts of suicide that romanticize or dramatize the description of suicidal deaths.

[The abridged URL for this post is  bit.ly/poundsguilty .]

[See Comment section: An update to this post in “View Comments” contains a link to an Australian radio talk show interview in which an adolescent psychologist speaks out against the film’s possible danger to teenagers as well as a link to a newspaper commentary stating that “any claim that Seven Pounds depicts suicide in a way that normalises, sanitises or glamourises the practice is laughably deluded” (01/08/2009).]

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Obama Urged To Take the Lead on Internet Safety

In Advocacy, Media, Prevention on December 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

ORIGINAL REPORT — A report in the Washington Post says “advocates are pushing president-elect Barack Obama to put more resources toward protecting children from crime, harassment and predators on the Web.”

The Family Online Safety Institute … is urging the new administration to appoint a National Safety Officer within the office of the Chief Technology Officer Obama has promised to create. The group is also asking for $100 million a year to fund education and research, an annual White House summit on safety issues, as well as the creation of a national council to coordinate efforts among federal agencies, advocacy and industry groups.

“Young people who are at the greatest risk online are the ones who are already at greater risk in the real world,” [said Nancy Willard, executive director for the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.] “We have to stop thinking about Internet safety as a technology issue and recognize that it is an extension of youth risk behavior.”

UPDATE (12/11/2008): In related news, a post on a Los Angeles Times technology blog states that “YouTube has created a new section of its site called the Abuse and Safety Center, largely as a resource for parents and their teenage children.” It also points to YouTube’s page on “who to call if you are concerned someone is at risk of suicide.”

Here’s the original post, from YouTube’s blog.

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

TV’s Airing of Suicide Evokes Prime Minister’s Comment

In Media, Policy on December 10, 2008 at 8:36 am

ORIGINAL REPORT — British media have been covering for several days the decision by Sky TV to broadcasat the 2006 assisted-suicide death of a 59-year-old American man who was living in the United Kingdom during the time of his illness and death.

The London Evening Standard reports on the comments made last night by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the matter:

Asked whether he thought the documentary was in the public interest or “distasteful voyeurism”, Mr. Brown said: “I believe that it’s necessary to ensure that there is never a case in this country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death, or somehow feels it is the expected thing to do.

“That’s why I have always opposed legislation for assisted deaths.”

Turning to whether the programme should be broadcast, the Prime Minister said: “It’s very important that these issues are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism. I hope broadcasters will remember that they have a wider duty to the general public.”

On a Sky News blog, Executive Editor Chris Birkett, states that the main point of the broadcast is getting lost in an uproar over broadcasting a person’s “moment of death”:

At its most basic the documentary asks the question: Is there a right to die? It’s not a new debate but the film’s emotional intensity ensures it gets another airing.

There is a second issue: Should the moment of an individual’s death be broadcast on television? And it’s this question that seems to have got the media so steamed up.

[The abridged URL for this story is  http://tinyurl.com/PM-Comment .]

Fan’s Death Should Prompt Compassion for Mental Illness

In Grief, Media, Mental Illness, Stigma on December 9, 2008 at 8:21 pm
Paula Goodspeed

Paula Goodspeed

ORIGINAL STORY — Since Suicide Prevention News and Comment was launched a few months ago to strengthen connections among the network of suicide prevention and grief workers in communities across North America, it is sad to note that the topic most covered by the media–with no close second-place story competing for the top spot–is the suicide of Paula Goodspeed near the Sherman Oaks, Calif., home of “American Idol” judge and pop music star Paula Abdul.

SPNAC has not posted coverage on the young woman’s death for a number of reasons, not the least of which is concern about the sensationalism of suicide in the media. But with the feeding frenzy continuing unabated (People magazine is all but turning the story into a serial feature, in which the latest installment refers to Abdul’s interview on Monday with news icon Barbara Walters on Sirius-XM’s “Barbara Live!“), we decided to weigh in by pointing SPNAC readers to coverage from a small newspaper in Goodspeed’s home state of Maine, the Kennebec Journal, in which reporter Amy Calder offers a story about a woman who succumbed to mental illness while suffering from the damage that comes from trying to cope with it in today’s society.

Grieving family members say she struggled with manic depression and an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. She also harbored a great sadness from when her two children were taken by the state several years ago amidst a bad marriage, said Goodspeed’s mother, Sandra McIntyre.

“She was beautiful,” McIntyre said from California [after the death], where she was preparing to bring her daughter’s ashes back to Maine. “She was a beautiful, beautiful daughter, and I helped her as much as I could. I can’t bear the loss of being without her. It’s so hard.”

Her mother had “moved to California in January to be with her daughter, who had shriveled from 140 pounds when she left Maine, to 78 pounds at her death.”

“Since I have been out here all this year, she has gone to her psychologist a lot, and it didn’t seem to help,” McIntyre said. “She was so depressed that she just felt like she wasn’t worthy of this world — that’s how depressed she was.”

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

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NPR Caller Tells of Trying To Save Abraham Biggs’ Life

In Intervention, Media on December 9, 2008 at 7:25 am

ORIGINAL BROADCAST — In a program broadcast last Thursday on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” a caller during one of the interviews relates information that–if it is accurate–is an important part of the backstory in the suicide of Abraham Biggs in Florida, which Biggs broadcast via webcam in real time over the Internet.

Josh from Indianapolis tells NPR host Neal Conan, “I was actually online and witnessed it as it was unfolding.”

There has been an enormous amount of media about the members of the online audience who watched Biggs’ suicidal actions (and his unconsciousness and his death) and either misinterpreted them as being a ruse or posted crude comments about the drama that was unfolding, but Josh gives a compelling account of people who were “frantically trying to figure out” how to get accurate contact information for Biggs in order to help him.

“People didn’t sit there and watch him for this long, just maliciously not calling in,” he says, recounting how a teenager in India remembered that Biggs had long ago posted his cell phone number online and tried to call but couldn’t complete the international phone connection, so he re-posted the number himself seeking help from others online.

“I was actually the first one that called in to the Miami police department,” says Josh, and after he was transferred to authorities in Broward, where the incident took place, “I was able to call the paramedics, and they were there 20 minutes later.”

So even though there was tragic ignorance, sustained indifference, and even cruelty at work in Biggs’ death, there also was, according to Josh’s report, numerous of people who acted urgently, responsibly, and compassionately. People on the Internet, he says,

“… would have done something a lot sooner if anybody could have … If that kid [the teen in India] had found that number sooner, the very fact that [Abraham] was on that forum could have saved his life.”

Josh’s call came during an interview with novelist Ayelet Waldman, who like Biggs suffers from bipolar disorder, and who like Biggs shared on the Internet the details of an unfolding suicidal crisis, but who–unlike in Biggs’ case–was immediately reached by an online acquaintance who was otherwise a stranger, who compelled her to contact her psychiatrist and get the help she needed.

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

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Social Media ‘Backwash’ Stops Distasteful Pepsi Ad

In Advocacy, Media on December 4, 2008 at 8:57 pm

[Editor’s note: Links in this post lead to pages that include a graphic depiction of suicide.]

ORIGINAL POST — A post today at “Global Idea Network,” Advertising Age’s blog, shares a glimpse of the backstory of Pepsi’s decision to abandon publication of an advertisement for a one-calorie cola beverage that shows a “lonely calorie” graphically killing itself using multiple methods of suicide.

“Here’s how fast and furious social media works,” writes blogger Chris Abraham.

The [original item about the offensive ad] was posted on Ad Age at 4:36 p.m. EST on Dec. 2. I read it and Tweeted at 6:16 p.m. EST the same day. And then I received [an] e-mail from [B. Bonin Bough, PepsiCo’s Director of Social Media] at 5:21 p.m. on Dec. 4.

Here’s an excerpt from Bough’s email:

“I saw your tweet and I just wanted to make sure I responded personally. We agree this creative is totally inappropriate; we apologize and please know it won’t run again. Also, thanks for the feedback and the Digg, it is important to discuss these types of issues. My best friend committed suicide and this is a topic very close to my heart. So again I offer my deepest apologies.”

Abraham concludes, “The lesson here is that social media has eyes everywhere and the network to make sure that advertisers can no longer hide stuff in niche markets.”

There is a word in intelligence about just this thing, and it relates to messaging and propaganda: “backwash.” Social media makes backwash inevitable. Here’s another one from intelligence: “blowback.” Backwash leads to blowback.

If anyone would like write to Pepsi to thank them for pulling the ad, you can do so at

PepsiCo Americas Beverages
Massimo F. d’Amore
Chief Executive Officer
700 Anderson Hill Road
Purchase, NY 10577
Fax: 914-253-2070

UPDATE (12/5/2008): Here’s more of the backstory, in an item posted on James Farrar’s blog “On Sustainability” at ZDNet, titled “Pepsico Saved from Suicide Campaign by Twitter?“.

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

British Parliament Taking Action on Pro-Suicide Websites

In Media, Policy, Prevention on December 3, 2008 at 8:26 pm
Imogen D'Arcy

Imogen D'Arcy

ORIGINAL REPORT — The Yorkshire Evening Post reports that the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday includes evidence that the newspaper’s longstanding campaign to shut down so-called pro-suicide websites might be getting a foothold in Parliament.

The Government has announced that new legislation will help to crack down on Internet sites which promote suicide and carry suggestions on how people can kill themselves.

Queen Elizabeth II, in her address announcing upcoming legislative initiatives, referred to the Coroners and Justice Bill, which includes a mandate to

Modernise the law on assisting suicide to help increase public understanding and reassure people that it applies as much on the Internet as it does off-line …

The Evening Post has been following the case of 13-year-old suicide victim Imogen D’Arcy, who died by suicide after viewing Internet sites on the subject.

[Leeds North West MP Greg] Mulholland said: “It simply cannot be right that impressionable young people like Imogen are able to visit websites which actually promote suicide and provide advice on how people can take their own life. I warmly welcome the fact that the issue was mentioned as part of the Queen’s Speech today, and that change should occur within the year, but we must continue to press the Government to ensure that this is the case.”

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

Alert Chat Partner Interrupts Online Suicide Threat

In Intervention, Media, Prevention on December 2, 2008 at 10:48 pm

ORIGINAL REPORT — An article by Reporter Ryan Mills in the Naples News reports on an incident last weekend in which a Naples, Fla., teen threatened suicide on a webcam, but the local sheriff’s office intervened after a tip came to them all the way from an Internet viewer in Texas.

A call came into the Sheriff’s Office’s Communications Center from [someone] in Texas who claimed to be chatting online with a girl from the Naples area. [He] said the girl, who claimed to be 17, held a knife to her throat and arms and threatened to kill herself, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

[A detective] … was able to locate the Web site, create an account and track down the girl’s screen name … [He] found the girl on the webcam, sent her instant messages and began a private online conversation … the Sheriff’s Office reported … He was able to narrow down the location and deputies were dispatched to the house where the girl was living with her grandparents … Deputies found a knife next to a computer.

The article is cautious not to point to any conclusions about the intentions of the teen who was involved, even stating, “whether or not the Collier County case was a legitimate call for help or a bad joke by a preteen, experts say so-called cyber suicide is a growing problem in the information age” [emphasis added].

“If they do it in public, either with people physically present or online with other people watching, that’s still a call for help,” [said Kim Rodgers, a licensed social worker and director of clinical services for the East Naples-based Project HELP]. “They want to follow through with it, but there’s still some hesitation.”

It’s possible, Rodgers said, that someone would threaten suicide online as a joke or to get attention.

A local TV reporter later interviewed the detective who was involved in the online intervention. A video of the TV report highlights the need for constructive action by anyone who sees Internet activity that might warn of suicidal behavior.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to contact us,” Det. [Scott] Rapisarda says. “It could help, and in this instance it did.”

Det. Rapisarda says it’s important to contact the authorities if you see someone crying out for help on-line, because detectives can’t monitor every website. And, he adds, sometimes kids slip through the cracks.

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