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.
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.
I 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
Last week I celebrated 16 years of sobriety. Let me say that again because I can’t believe it: Last week I celebrated 16 years of sobriety.
The first 8 years of my sobriety were filled with mayhem: divorce, single-working motherhood, death of my parents, death of my dog and a deep-dark depression that led to a diagnosis that – along with my higher power – has kept me sober.
For me, the obsession to drink was gone by the time I put down the bottle. I was blessed. I have watched many, many alcoholics and addicts struggle with that agonizing obsession in early sobriety. Their desperation and self-loathing is visceral. My heart breaks for them.
I gave little thought to picking up a drink until I fell down into my black hole. My depression – and my seeming inability to fix myself – was so exasperating that I thought about picking up a drink. Nothing else seemed to work. Why not turn to the go-to remedy I used for decades: a bottle of chardonnay, a Corona with lime or a half-dozen glasses of Long Island iced tea?
Why not self-medicate my depression with alcohol? I asked myself that question and then got my ass to a meeting.
The answer to that question is simple: Alcohol is a depressant. The very thing I had been using for years to make me feel better had made me feel worse. I was blind to that fact until the brain chemistry was explained to me.
I can’t recall the details but simply put, alcohol would briefly alter the chemistry in my brain and make me feel better. But when the euphoria wore off, the hormones and receptors in my brain would not function as they should and I would plunge even deeper into my depression.
I had one of those cloud-parting epiphanies and my life made sense to me. I had been self-medicating with drugs alcohol since I was a teenager and I progressively got sicker and sicker. I accepted my diagnosis for depression and decided to get on with treating …
I don’t wear a watch. I have watches, very nice watches, in fact. I don’t even know where they are – probably in a drawer somewhere.
I don’t wear a watch because I have a thing with time. I learned early on in my recovery from alcoholism and depression that “time” was a problem for me. A very big problem.
I didn’t realize my “time” problem until a friend in recovery asked me one day, “What time is it?” I looked at my watch and told him the time. Then he asked again, “what time is it?” And I looked at my watch again and told him the time.
“No,” he said. “What TIME is it?”
I looked at him like he was crazy and said, “I don’t know. You tell me, what time is it?”
“Now,” he said. I had a D’oh Homer Simpson moment and then understood what he was trying to tell me. I was not in the present. “That’s why I don’t wear a watch,” he said.
I went to visit my daughter this weekend. She lives about 2-1/5 hours away. Half way there I realized I had forgotten my medications.
I take three medications, two antidepressants and mood-stabilizer. I have been taking them for 7 years. Every day. Morning. Night. I don’t mess around and skip a day here or there. I take them without fail.
I did the math in my head. I took my last dose at 7 am Friday. I was not planning on getting home until at least 7 pm on Sunday. That would be 60 hours without my medications. Once I forgot to order a three-month supply of one of my antidepressants and ran out for about three days so I knew what it felt like to skip a few days without one of the medications.
I had never gone as long as 60 hours without all three. I knew I would feel some kind of withdrawal. I just didn’t know what to expect.
About 8 years ago, during my last major depression, I was told that depression was anger turned inward and that if I did not get rid of my anger, I would not get better.
This baffled me because at the time I felt nothing but hopelessness. I had emotionally flatlined. I didn’t feel angry. I felt exhausted. However, the people who told me this – my psych nurse and therapist – knew what they were talking about. They had spent decades treating people with depression. If they said I would not get well until I got rid of my anger, then I would get rid of my anger.
My therapist gave me a whiffle bat and wanted me to beat a pillow. Really? A whiffle bat? A pillow? I figured that if the amount of anger in me was enough to reduce me to a listless, despondent lump of flesh, a whiffle bat was not going to do the trick.
I put on my steel-toed work boots, found a metal baseball bat in the shed and drove to a junkyard. I asked the guys if I could have a few minutes alone with one of their vehicles. They raised their eyebrows and took me to a green truck. They left me alone.
Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
I was stunned.
My mother had rarely spoken about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. They did not have hot water and she and her three sisters and two brothers took baths one-by-one in a tub in water that had been warmed on a stove. You wanted to be the first in line to get the cleanest, warmest water, she used to tell me. They didn’t have much money. They worked hard. They churned their own butter.
I could not recall her ever speaking about her father – my grandfather, who died when I was very young. About all I knew was that he drank a lot. So I asked. She rattled off stories – none of them happy or funny. He took all six kids to school in the morning and then started drinking. She had seen him drunk, sitting on a curb. She was so embarrassed that if she needed to go past his watering hole she would take a different route to avoid seeing him.
He took the money she had saved to buy herself a car. When she announced she was going to college – the only one of the four girls in the family who did – he kicked her out. Women didn’t need a college education, she recalled him saying. She went on to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
We have a couple more studies that suggest that paralyzing key facial muscles with Botox can reduce the symptoms of depression.
In a recent 24-week randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study, done by Michelle Magid, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas, 30 participants with depressive symptoms were randomized and give injections of Botox or a placebo between the eyebrows (which happens to be exactly where I need it.)
The men were injected with 39 units of botulinum and the women were injected with 29 units. At week 12, the placebo group crossed over to treatment, and the treatment group crossed over to placebo.Participants were evaluated at weeks 0, 3, 6, 12, 15, 18, and 24. The primary outcome was a reduction from baseline of at least 50% in the 21-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale score.
In a yet-to-be-published study in the in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, Eric Finzi, a cosmetic dermatologist, and Norman Rosenthal, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, randomly assigned a group of 74 patients with major depression to receive either Botox or saline injections in the forehead muscles that enable us to frown.
Imagine a bulletin board on the internet that allowed anyone to comment – anonymously – on your job performance.
Anyone can say whatever they want about the work you do. Some praise and thank you. Others mock you and trash a project that you painstakingly researched and produced. You must always always put your name on your work and claim it as your own. Still, anonymous critics swipe away at your work, leaving you unable to confront your accuser.
That’s what it’s like to be a newspaper reporter these days. It used to be that when readers wanted to criticize or comment on your story they would write a letter to the editor. Newspapers didn’t publish anonymous letters. They called the author and confirmed the person actually wrote the letter.
Then came the internet. Anyone can anonymously say anything about your work – and you – without any consequence. It ‘s unfair but as my mother used to say – “Life isn’t fair.”
You were right, mom. Life isn’t fair.
I am also an alcoholic. An alcoholic journalist. It’s been 15 years since I had my last drink but I am still an alcoholic and still a journalist. Always will be. I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic or a journalist. I understand there is still a lot of stigma associated with being an alcoholic. But I am at a point in my career, life and recovery where I am comfortable with who I am. I don’t hide either but I don’t mix the two in reporting the news.