Why the military can’t get suicide prevention right

By Christine Stapleton

Last Friday, the Inspector General of the Department of Defense released a report called the Suicide Event Report Data Quality Assessment. I had no idea what the assessment was about but I am devoted to suicide prevention and intrigued by data so I gave the 100-page report a read.

When an active service member commits suicide or attempts suicide, a Suicide Event Report is compiled. The report is an investigation of the suicide and circumstances leading up to it. It is a sort of psychological autopsy that is supposed to provide military leaders with reliable information on suicide risk factors that will assist in designing effective suicide prevention efforts.

The IG decided to investigate how Suicide Event Reports are compiled after finding a high number of  “don’t know/data unavailable” responses to questions in the 2011 Annual Report – the most recent year available.  Here are the questions that received the most “don’t know/data unavailable” reponses:

Table2

You would think that these are among the most important questions in determining why someone committed suicide. So, why couldn’t the folks assigned to complete these reports answer these questions?

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Can depression help your career?

By Christine Stapleton

A good headline, like a lot of good things in life, will suck you in. This one got me: “How business leaders can use fatigue and depression to their advantage.”

Do tell, I thought, because I’ve been in the working world for more than 30 years and I’ve yet to meet a boss, supervisor or leader who has used fatigue and depression to their advantage. On the planet where I live, depression and fatigue are weaknesses.shutterstock_168524867

Come to think of it, I have never encountered a boss supervisor or leader who ever had to take time off from work because depression or fatigue. That’s only something us worker bees do. So, I had to read this article by Andrew Cave, published on the Forbes web site on Wednesday.

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How I find serenity while staring depression in the eye

By Christine Stapleton

Sometimes, it is the juxtaposition of the acutely mundane and profoundly sad that makes “it” all the more painful. The folding of the laundry, inserting the key into the ignition or even eating seems so ridiculous when it is stacked against immense sadness and grief.

It is going from one absolute extreme to another at the speed of light that takes the wind out of you, mentally and physically. Frankly, I don’t know to get rid of this. I only know what it feels like, that dream-like state of this-can’t-be-happening and the-car-needs-gas.

shutterstock_141965581You look around and realize that your physical world has not changed – the paint on the walls is still the same color – but everything looks and feels different. How can that be?

When I look back at my life and my depression, I realize that I had lived in that state for about two years before I fell into my last – and worst – major depression. It was the 16-months of illness between my parents’ deaths and the aftermath that did me in. It was living in that confusing  juxtaposition every single day that took me down.

I know that juxtaposition will be a part of my life any time I am confronted with profound delayed grief or a sudden traumatic loss. I know – from countless hours of therapy and self-help books – that acceptance is the key to my mental health in these times.

I pray for acceptance because I know that if I can accept a situation, I can handle it. I can even be helpful to others. I also know that acceptance can be fleeting. This morning I may think I have accepted a situation but this afternoon I may find myself fighting it. That’s okay as long as I recognize it and pray and meditate on acceptance: “God, please help me to accept this, please, please, please, please, please.”

Then I say the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s that wisdom that will get me through and keep me from the edge of that black hole.

Wisdom definition image available from Shutterstock.

 

 

 

 

 



I have depression and alcoholism. So what?

By Christine Stapleton

I find people generally have three reactions when I tell them I am a recovered alcoholic with Bipolar II. They either tell me that they or a loved one has struggled with a mental illness, begin talking about the weather or look at me like I just told them I have a stripper pole in my bedroom – which I don’t.

I can pretty much tell how they feel about mental illness by their reaction. When someone responds with their own experience, I listen. It’s such a comfort to have someone else willing to share their own experience. As for the weather response, I chime in with my own thoughts about the weather.

The last thing I want to do is make someone uncomfortable discussing mental illness. I figure I’ve planted a little seed in their mind that it’s okay to talk about mental illness. It’s their responsibility to let it grow – or die.

CurlyThe stripper-pole response? Well, that’s a little trickier. I take into consideration the context in which the topic arose during our conversation and the person’s attitude before I made my revelation.

If they were being a smart-ass about someone else’s mental illness or treatment, I throw it right back at them. I’ve always been what my father called a weisenheimer, (think Curly in the Three Stooges.)

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How the Media Covers Suicide: Day 2

By Christine Stapleton

Covering Suicide and Mental Illness is a three-day seminar for journalists sponsored by The Poynter Institute, The McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute and the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Here are my thoughts on issues covered during today’s session. #suicidereporting

Today we learned some really wonderful techniques on how to cover suicide. Unfortunately, they aren’t very practical.

For example, it was suggested that we not use the word “suicide” in a headline. Really? Not only does it become impossibly difficult to write a headline about a suicide and not use the word “suicide,” in these days of SEO-driven journalism, you must put the word “suicide” in the headline or your editor will.shutterstock_56105848

Headlines are no longer about the sexiest verb we can find. Headlines are about SEO and using words that Google Trend tells us will attract readers. Suicide is one of those words.

We were also given suggestions on how to speak with family members at the scene. First of all, if you go to a suicide scene and there are any family members present, the cops aren’t going to let you speak with them until they have ruled the death a suicide and not a homicide. This means you won’t have a prayer of getting an interview with a family member until the cops have finished their interviews.

I’ve been doing this for 30+ years and the chances of  family members wanting to speak with you after what they have been through – the suicide itself and then an interview with the cops – are slim to none. With homicides, you can often get a family member to talk and even give you a photo of the victim. But suicide – no way.

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How the media covers suicide: Day 1

By Christine Stapleton

shutterstock_145597057Covering Suicide and Mental Illness is a three-day seminar for journalists sponsored by The Poynter Institute, The McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute and the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Here are my thoughts on issues covered during today’s session. #suicidereporting
What the DSM is to mental health, the AP Stylebook is to journalism. The Stylebook is our Bible. It not only tells us where and when to put our commas, it provides journalists with a uniform set of rules for grammar, principals and practices.

The Associated Press first published the Stylebook in 1953 and updates it every year. On March 7, 2013 – three months after the Sandy Hook school shooting – the AP added an entry on mental illness to the Stylebook. Below is an excerpt from the guidelines, the new industry standard:

mental illness Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

When used, identify the source for the diagnosis. Seek firsthand knowledge; ask how the source knows. Don’t rely on hearsay or speculate on a diagnosis. Specify the time frame for the diagnosis and ask about treatment. A person’s condition can change over time, so a diagnosis of mental illness might not apply anymore. Avoid anonymous sources. On-the-record sources can be family members, mental health professionals, medical authorities, law enforcement officials and court records. Be sure they have accurate information to make the diagnosis. Provide examples of symptoms.

Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible: He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to court documents. She was diagnosed with anorexia, according to her parents. He was treated for depression.

Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story.

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

Avoid unsubstantiated statements by witnesses or first responders attributing violence to mental illness. A first responder often is quoted as saying, without direct knowledge, that a crime was committed by a person with a “history of mental illness.” Such comments should always be attributed to someone who has knowledge of the person’s history and can authoritatively speak to its relevance to the incident.

Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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How the media covers suicide and mental health

By Christine Stapleton

shutterstock_120558922I am on a plane, flying to Washington, DC. For the next three days I will be immersed in suicide – specifically, how the media covers suicide and mental health.

The seminar is being sponsored by The Poynter Institute, the McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute and the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. As a journalist, this is a topic that is especially dear to me: I know people who have killed themselves, I’ve attempted twice and in the newsroom, suicide is a touchy editorial issue.

I sit near the police scanner. Every day there are numerous suicide calls. They are automated. A Siri-esque woman with a choppy monotone announces the call: “Rescue 2, attempted suicide, 1234 Main Street.”

We only write about suicides if the suicide is a public spectacle – someone jumping off an overpass and closing the interstate, causing a massive traffic jam – or if there is a suicide cluster – a group of teens kill themselves by allowing a train to run over them or the victim was famous, such as Robin Williams.

There are countless suicides and attempted suicides that you never hear about. Are they news? Should they be news? We write about teenagers who kill themselves in drunken driving accidents but we don’t write about a teenager who kills herself.

Why? Are we contributing to the stigma that plagues mental illness by not doing so? I believe, unwittingly we are. Allegedly we do this to protect grieving loved ones. More often you hear, “it just isn’t news.”

But is it?

As a journalist, this is a unique opportunity for me. With deadlines constantly over our head, we rarely get a chance to sit down, think, breathe and exchange ideas about how the media covers suicide and mental health. These decisions are usually made with haste and are forgotten by the next news cycle.

I will be tweeting and blogging for the next few days and would love to get your take on this issue. Our hashtag is #suicidereporting

Woman on phone image available from Shutterstock.



My sobriety depends on treating both alcoholism and depression

By Christine Stapleton

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Robin Williams: Celebrity vs non-celebrity suicide

By Christine Stapleton

shutterstock_107614721Robin Williams.

Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Cobain. Marilyn Monroe. Vincent VanGogh. Sigmund Freud. Spalding Grey. Frida Kahlo. Shakir Stewart (Def Jam). Cleopatra. Junior Seau. Roy Raymond (founder, Victoria’s Secret). Socrates. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. L’Wren Scott. Virginia Woolf. Abbie Hoffman. David Carradine. Wendy O. Williams. Mary Kay Bergman (SouthPark voices) Robert Enke (soccer).

These are the suicides you hear about in the media. Because of their accomplishments and talent, their suicides supercede the hushed rule in newsrooms throughout the land: We don’t cover suicides unless it’s someone famous or caused a public spectacle.

Why, you ask, when journalists are so damn ruthless about ferreting out and publicizing the most private and embarrassing moments of other people’s lives do they not cover suicides? Publicly, editors will tell you that they do it out of respect for the families and loved ones of those who commit suicide. You can decide whether you want to believe that.

Here is the problem with that logic: It covers up the prevalence of suicide and mental illness. For every celebrity who commits suicide, there are countless others who have suffered just as much and took their lives, too.

For example, in 2012 there were 205 suicides in Palm Beach County, where I live. At the local newspaper, where I work, we covered two: a murder/suicide and a teenager who shot himself on a bench near his exclusive, private school.

As a reporter I have had to interview the parents, husbands, wives, children and friends of murder and accident victims. It’s not easy and most of the time they don’t want their loved one or themselves in the news. I get that. I respect that.

The last thing I want to do is call the parents of a teenager who hung herself or stepped in front of a train. But are we doing ourselves a disservice by not covering suicides? Are we stigmatizing suicide and mental illness even more by keeping it off the evening news unless the person is a celebrity?

We often write about people who die of breast cancer. Occasionally we report that someone died of AIDS. But people who are killed by their mental illness – no way.

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. As someone who twice tried to kill herself and knows other who have, I want more attention, compassion and research dollars for mental illnesses. I want to shout “IT’S AN ILLNESS – NOT A WEAKNESS, PEOPLE!”

I don’t want to inflict more pain and suffering on those left behind. I don’t want them to feel ashamed or guilty. I don’t know what to do.

Woman on a hill image available from Shutterstock.



Suicide prevention: When the Second Amendment trumps the First

By Christine Stapleton

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Hoping for a Happy Ending
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Hope for a Happy Ending: A Journalist's
Story of Depression, Bipolar and Alcoholism
Christine Stapleton

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