Last week, the tragic news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths flooded our newsfeeds and shocked us to our cores. In April it was the passing of 28 year-old Swedish DJ and producer, Avicci, and just over a year ago, we mourned the deaths of Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park.
Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Alexander McQueen….the list, sadly, goes on. The news of celebrity suicides overtakes headlines and social media feeds. Sometimes it’s reported responsibly, with appropriate and respectful terminology and the omission of graphic details. More often though, the word suicide is front and centre and includes the particulars of hangings or self-inflicted gunshot wounds or overdoses. The driving force behind most of the reporting, it seems to me, is to maximize the number of readers, and that can badly compromise journalistic integrity.
A celebrity name + the mention of suicide + the method of suicide = a surefire formula for attracting attention and clicks.
This is not to suggest that the news of celebrity suicides shouldn’t be reported. At the very least, these heartbreaking stories remind us that no matter how things look on the outside, no matter how much fame, success or wealth an individual achieves, it tells nothing of what’s happening on the inside. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate and it’s not about circumstance. It’s a sickness, as legitimate and devastating as any physical disease, and, left untreated, can be fatal.
These stories can also be the catalyst for important conversations, but, unfortunately, they can also be triggers for those who are susceptible. Research has long shown a contagion effect after the reporting of a celebrity suicide. The more details reported in the story, the greater the risk.
What’s clear is that the media, in all its forms, has tremendous power. My question is, in the realm of mental health, why are we not using that power to to spark another kind of contagion effect?
If suicide reporting increases the incidence of suicide, doesn’t it stand to reason that reporting the ways in which people get help, manage their mental illness and lead fulfilling lives might inspire those who struggle to seek treatment and support?
Why aren’t the stories of hope and recovery in the headlines?
Over the last few years, we’ve heard celebrities speak out about their mental health battles. Lady Gaga admits to struggling with PTSD, Selena Gomez lives with depression and panic disorder, Demi Lovato has a history of self-harm and disordered eating, Brooke Shields experienced debilitating postpartum depression, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson battles depression and Lena Dunham deals with OCD and anxiety. There is tremendous value in those in the public eye sharing their stories, but they also fall short. There’s a gap between their admission of living with mental illness and their recovery stories. What happens in between? What do they do when they’re feeling so lost in the darkness, they’re afraid they’ll never be found?
If journalists can report on the intimate details of a suicide, why aren’t they sharing the the same level of detail about life-saving coping strategies and treatment options?
Is it because that isn’t the stuff of click bait?
I have lived with depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder my entire life. I have experienced spectacular lows, panic attacks and suicidal ideations that had me admitted to a psychiatric ward. But a far more important part of my story is the fact that I manage my mental illness with exercise, yoga, therapy, medication and the support of friends and family. I have a chronic medical condition that comes with difficult times, but I also have hope and a life that is fulfilling and meaningful.
These are the stories I want to see in the headlines. The ones that inspire people to live, that let them know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and that there are things you can do to get you there. Let’s make hope contagious instead of despair and save some lives in the process.