Jesse Graham was a well-liked 17-year-old from Perth, Ont. In June 2010, he attended his prom and two weeks later, he went with a friend to the wake of an 18-year-old suicide victim.
That night, he hung himself from a beam in his basement.
Both deaths were reported in the Ottawa Citizen’s obituaries section as the teens having “died suddenly”.
A reporter with the paper, Chris Cobb, cold-called the Grahams and discovered the family wanted to talk about their son’s death.
Cobb published “A young life, a senseless end,” a month later. The article used Jesse’s name and the word ‘suicide’, went into detail about the method used, and mentioned there were as many as 1,500 people at the teen’s funeral. These topics are all taboo in traditional reporting of suicides.
In the past, the media have been very careful what they wrote about suicide, to be sensitive to the family and to avoid the phenomenon of suicide contagion. However, with suicide awareness on the rise there has been a need to re-evaluate the standard approach to the issue.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association re-released guidelines for reporting on suicide in 2008, but changed very little. The association still asserts that reporting on the method used, including the word suicide in the headline, or romanticizing the death can lead to copycat suicides.
To decrease the stigma of talking about suicide, the association suggests that a portion of the media coverage be devoted to warning signs, treatment options, and available community resources.
However, many journalists say the most effective way to tell a story is to put a face to the issue because people relate to other people.
When Cobb covered Jesse Graham’s death he promised the family, his story would run alongside an informative article to help parents who might miss the signs, but he said it’s people opening up that breaks down the stigma surrounding suicide.
“It was the most difficult interview I’ve ever done—heartbreaking. The family was so raw, they’d agreed to be open, but I was not prepared for how open they were.”
Cobb has a son almost the same age as Jesse and he recognized a lot of the teenage behaviours the parents mentioned, as ones he had also seen in his son.
“When your kid commits suicide, in most cases you don’t see it coming and there’s no shame in that. Even when this family sifted back they couldn’t find any signals.”
Still, he said stigma exists and not everyone is willing to share their experiences. He said the family of the first boy, who killed himself in Perth, did not want to be interviewed and was upset when their names were included in the piece about Jesse.
Overall, the reaction to the piece was positive Cobb said. “I got calls from people whose children had committed suicide a year, 10 years ago, just wanting to talk.”
He links his article with the Ottawa Senators’ assistant coach Luke Richardson going public after his daughter’s death later that year. “Before that it was very unusual to talk about.”
Moira Farr is an Ottawa-based journalist who lost her boyfriend to suicide on Valentine’s Day in 1994. She has also seen a change in reporting style since she published her book “After Daniel: A suicide survivor’s tale” in 1999.
She said detailed coverage of recent high-profile suicides in the city, like that of Daron Richardson, have had a positive impact on awareness, and encouraged people with similar problems to seek help.
Last year, the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau doubled the hours of its mental health walk-in clinic from one day a week to two. Farr said other youth services have seen a 25 per cent increase in traffic in space of a few months and that is not going down.
Though she said there are more dangers from the recent spike in teen suicide coverage than just copycat suicides.
“There is this idea that there has been an epidemic of suicides in teenagers,” Farr said, when in fact numbers have remained relatively constant.
In Canada in 2005 there were 552 reported suicides in youth between 10 and 24, that number was 488 in 2008, according to Statistics Canada.
The primary difference today is that communities are made aware of those loses whether journalists report on them or not. Friends and families of victims often create online memorials via social media to remember the teen.
Daron Richardson’s Facebook page is still active and she has more than 1,000 friends. One of those friends tagged her in a photo last month for what would have been her 16th birthday.
Executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention Tim Wall called social media voyeuristic and said he is worried that sensationalism carries the potential risk for copycat suicides.
“Facebook romanticizes suicide. These very public memorials are not helpful, with it splashed all over. People need time to grieve and a memorial doesn’t allow for that,” said Wall.
Ben Leikin of Ottawa Public Health supports the use of social media. He said that youth in a shocked state will use social media to connect, but what is often missing from the online memorials are contact numbers for counselling services.
He said mainstream and social media should continue to leave out the method used by suicide victims, and focus instead on the stories of individuals who have been successful at battling suicidal thoughts.
Reporters are less sure following the guidelines provided by mental health practitioners is always the best route, especially if social media brings the issue up, then old-fashioned media can answer questions from the community.
“Suicide should always be discussed in a sensitive way, said Farr. “I was compelled to explore the whole subject and answer questions I had.”
The Globe and Mail’s health reporter Andre Picard agrees.
“Most are valid common sense, but like French grammar every rule has many exceptions. Even medical guidelines, I’m not sure are the gold standard.”
Picard said he isn’t convinced by the studies the psychiatric association’s draws from.
One of the studies cited in the guidelines is from Austria. It concluded that after a newspaper reported someone had killed themselves by jumping in front of a subway, the number of deaths by subway increased.
“They always cite the Vienna subways story. People tend to copy the methodology versus increases the number. The numbers didn’t go up, they stayed steady, while the number of subway deaths went up, there were less people jumping off bridges,” Picard said.
Therefore he said there is no scientific reason not to report on the method of suicide.
“No I think my view is, it’s relevant. In a murder we say somebody was shot. I always comparing it to murders. It’s a case-by-case basis you don’t always need the gruesome details.”
Picard said that newspapers have in-house ethical guidelines and journalists don’t need specific ones for suicide. There is a professional responsibility not to inflict unnecessary harm balanced with a responsibility to raise awareness to prevent future harm.
In telling the Grahams’ story, Cobb said the important distinction was that it was the family that wanted to share the details and the community respected them for their decision.
Jesse’s friends and classmates were drawn to social media to share their grief. The new media has created an inability to ignore the impact of a young person’s suicide on a community and mainstream media has had to change because of it.