SALT LAKE CITY — Society is struggling to battle suicide and the search for solutions includes responsible media coverage. That requires an ethical approach to coverage that minimizes harm for families and doesn't provide fuel for contagion — the term given to copycat attempts at suicide that can follow and create a cluster of suicides in a community.
Every suicide is a tremendous personal tragedy. It's affecting our youth, who are more prone to contagion, and middle-aged men at an alarmingly high rate. There is a need to shine a light on this problem, but how?
What happens when suicide is entwined with potential crimes, such as in Logan, where a woman is charged with helping a friend attempt suicide ("Police: Logan woman helped friend attempt suicide"), or in Spanish Fork, where an 18-year-old faces a murder charge for allegedly assisting and recording the suicide of a 16-year-old girl (Prosecutors maintain murder charge fits case of man accused of helping with girl's suicide.")
The Deseret News in December ran an in-depth piece focused on Lone Peak High School and how its leaders were trying to help students not choose suicide. Titled "The Lone Peak Story: What you didn't know about affluence and teen suicide," the piece includes the solutions educators there are employing to help kids understand their value, and to help them maintain hope in the face of trials. The story link includes a six-minute video produced by Lone Peak High School titled "We See You" that works to tell students they are not alone and to understand that the people they respect also faced many of the same personal struggles that the students are now facing.
Deseret News reporter Lois Collins accompanied the article with a story with the simple but important headline: "How to help a teen who may be suicidal." These were proactive efforts by the Deseret News to provide understanding of the problem and to highlight solutions.
But it's just one part of media responsibility.
The Society of Professional Journalists offers this: "Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place." Shine a light on the issue, but be carefull in the words and images chosen. Will celebrating a life after it is lost encourage others to take their lives to receive a similar celebration? That's part of the contagion.
We are trying to report on suicide as a public health issue. The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office deals with suicide on a daily basis. When the focus is public health it allows for government officials and public health officials to seek and fund solutions just as they would other serious public health concerns.
Greg Hudnall, an educator and expert on the issue whom both KSL and the Deseret News have consulted with and quoted at length during the past five years, noted that in 1999, the HOPE task force was formed. The acronym stands for "Hold on, persuade, empower," and represents people trying to stop suicides.
Hudnall, now the founder and executive director of Hope4Utah, is spreading the gospel of suicide prevention to media, to schools, and to officials here in Utah and across the nation where his influence is being felt.
Still, there are challenges and new issues continue to arise. So called "assisted suicide" continues to be part of the public dialogue as states use different labels — "right to die" — to create support for causes. We try to avoid labels as much as possible. Most recently, New York's highest court ruled against physician-assisted suicide and said it's not a fundamental right, drawing cheers from those who have been engaged in battling suicide of all kinds for years.
In June, a Massachusetts judge found a teenage girl guilty of assisting in the suicide of a friend because she encouraged him to carry out the suicide after he balked. She wasn't in the area, but spoke to him over the phone. She was guilty of manslaughter in this case, perhaps breaking new legal ground.
And here in Utah is the case of Tyerell Przybycien, 18, who is charged in 4th District Court with murder and desecration of a human body in the death of 16-year-old Jchandra Brown. It spurred heartfelt conversation (and continues to) in our newsroom about how many details of the incident should be shared as we understand the threat of contagion in describing in too great a detail death by suicide.
This case, like the Massachusetts tragedy, is new territory for both society at large and the legal community. Transparency and information about the case are needed to fully understand Przybycien's culpability or lack of it in the death of Brown. Nothing good comes from suicide.
Giving the family of Brown a chance to have a voice also becomes an important part of the coverage. In the case of Brown's mother, Sue Bryan, her words honor the memory of her daughter.
After listening to courtroom proceedings two weeks ago she said she wanted to offer her perspective. "I just want love and justice," Bryan said. "And the last trust is in God himself. He will be the final judge."
Next Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will host a walk titled "Out of the Darkness" to help spread the word about suicide prevention. For information, contact Taryn Aiken, 801-836-0958 or email@example.com.
Every suicide is tragic, yet every suicide is different. Striving to find solutions to this medical crisis deserves attention from all of us. As the Deseret News notes in nearly every article we write about suicide, the Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basic. The national crisis hotline is 800-784-2433.