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.
Last week Florida lawmakers passed a law banning most abortions during the third-trimester. A doctor who performs an abortion during the third trimester and anyone who assists can be charged with the third-degree felony.
However, the law makes an exception when a “physician certifies in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, there is a medical necessity for legitimate emergency medical procedures for termination of the pregnancy to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of imminent substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.”
Without wading into the debate over abortion, I would like to weigh in on the exception in the exception of “a psychological condition.”
My disenchantment with politics has hit a new low. I didn’t think that was possible until I began looking at Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s 2015 budget proposal line-by-line.
I was writing another story on child welfare programs and figured while I was looking at the budget, I might as well look at our governor’s budget proposal for mental health programs. Going straight to the bottom line, I see the governor is proposing spending $2.1 million more than the current fiscal year on adult mental health programs. Good news, right?
I took a gander at funding for strategic priorities:
The only strategic priorities that will see an increase in funding under the governor’s budget is mental health transitional beds, $2.5 million compared to $0 this year and $3 million to restore county criminal justice grants, which received no funding this year.
But under the category “Provide Effective and Enhanced Prevention Services,” which support 7 community crisis stabilization units and other local mental health care programs – the governor is cutting funding for all seven programs.
The governor’s proposed budget would have ticked me off three years ago – at the height of the recession – but it infuriates me now because Florida has a $1.2 billion budget surplus. So a $2.1 million increase for adult mental health care programs amounts to chump change. I mean, really?
The governor claims the three main parts of his “It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget” are: 1) Creating Jobs for the Next Generation; 2) Investing in Education; and 3) Strengthening Florida Families. If that is true, investing in the state’s mental health care system should be among your top priorities.
If you want to attract business to Florida, you need a healthy and attractive environment. Homelessness and those pesky homeless people pushing grocery carts along the sidewalk or lining the intersections …
I couldn’t hear what the man on 60 Minutes was saying because I was busy making dinner but I saw the scar across his face and figured he was a veteran or had been in a car crash.
I record 60 Minutes every week so I figured I would watch it later. I did and then I realized this was Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds. I vaguely remembered reading a few news stories about some senator’s son attacking his father and then killing himself but there was no follow up – just that the senator had pulled through.
I did not know that Deeds’ son, Gus, 24, had bipolar disorder and that he and his father had been in the emergency room trying to get treatment for Gus the day before the attack. Or that there were no beds available in the psych unit and so Gus went home – unlike other kids who can linger for days in emergency rooms waiting for a psych bed to open up.
The story got more horrific as it went along. Deeds gave us the unimaginable details of the attack and how he looked at his son as he sliced at him with a knife and told him how much he loved him. And then there were interviews with other parents who had been in similar situations, with children much younger than Gus – discharged from emergency rooms because there were no beds for psych patients.
All I could think while watching was… What The F-word is wrong with us! Sandy Hook wasn’t enough? Aurora wasn’t enough? Virginia Tech wasn’t enought? What astounds and infuriates me is that we – or at least I – know who is to blame.
I have a few questions about Urban Outfitters controversial “Depression” shirt – like who the heck would wear that?
You’ve got a cropped t-shirt (who even wears those anymore?) covered the word “depression” in a busy pattern of different size letters. In the t-shirt’s defense, “Depression” is the name of the clothing line. Really? Who names their clothing line after a mental illness? What’s next?
Well, I don’t know what’s next but I can tell what the last shirt that got Urban Outfitters in trouble. It’s the one that said “Eat Less” on an emaciated teenager. REALLY? I mean, REALLY? You tell me that there was a photo shoot at some studio and the stylists put an “Eat Less” t-shirt on an emaciated teenage model and SOMEONE in the studio didn’t say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not cool. We can’t do this!”
And there is some buyer at Urban Outfitters (who apparently didn’t get the memo about the Eat Less shirt) who saw the Depression t-shirt and thought, “Ooooo! We just have to carry that shirt!”
Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of the stuff that Urban Outfitters sells. In fact, I just got a pair of tangerine Chuck Taylors for $10. Obviously, I don’t have much fashion sense but I love a good deal. But what little fashion sense – and common sense – I have were thoroughly insulted by the “Depression” t-shirt.
Every Saturday morning I refill my pink pill box: S-M-T-W-T-F-S. I have been doing this for years. Three different medications. One of this pill. One of that pill. One-and-a-half of those pills. Every morning and every night, I take my meds. It’s like brushing my teeth – just something I do when I wake up and before I go to bed.
My meds. I go weeks without giving a thought to my meds. I just take them. My life is good. No more hopeless black holes or vibrating with energy like a wide-eyed racehorse pawing at the dirt in the starting gate. Nice and steady. I have grown used to it and I really, really like it.
So, when something comes along that has the potential to seriously disrupt my balance, I tend to freak out. Anxiety is the enemy. Drama is the enemy. I have made enough enemies in my life. I don’t need to make anymore.
There are three things that scare the hell out of me: Sharks. Being trapped in a car after an accident and cut out with the jaws of life; unemployment. As long as I stay out of the ocean and drive safely, I’m in good shape. Right now, unemployment is beyond my control.
And I like to be in control.
After learning that the driver who was killed after a chase through Washington was not a terrorist but a woman with a baby in the car, my first thought was: “Let me guess, she had a history of mental illness.”
I’m sure I was not the only journalist in the country with that thought. In newsrooms throughout the land I’m sure there were reporters and editors who said, “I bet she had a history of mental illness” and made quotation marks in the air with their fingers when they said “HISTORY OF MENTAL ILLNESS.”
It’s kind of like when a hurricane is heading our way and we turn on all the TVs in the newsroom and take bets on who will be the first reporter to say “feeder bands.” That’s how common and trite these horrific news stories have become.
The day after the Washington shooting a guy set himself on fire at the Mall in Washington. In my head – and I bet in your head, too – a little voice said: “I bet he had a history of mental illness.”
I can’t help but watch Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, talk about mental illness after a mass shooting. He’s like a zamboni clearing the ice of any blame that should go to our lack of gun regulations and leaving behind a nice smooth surface for him to rant on and on about us “maniacs” getting our hands on guns.
I can’t help myself. I have to watch him. Last Sunday on Meet the Press he claimed there just weren’t enough “good guys with guns” to stop the “bad guy” with a gun at the Navy shipyard in Washington, DC. I think Wayne watched too many westerns as a kid. Wayne, you just can’t divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” You ever see the movie Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro?
We have got to stop letting guys like LaPierre stoke the fear of people with mental illnesses. The overwhelming majority of us are not a threat. Putting my name in a database because I tried to kill myself 30-some years ago is not going to make you safer, Wayne. And, it’s going to piss me off and clear the ice for a nasty, expensive legal showdown between the ACLU and government – which will again distract us from any meaningful gun regulation and care for people with mental illnesses.
In July I blogged about Dr. John Christensen, a West Palm Beach doctor who was charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the overdose deaths of two patients he treated at his clinics, which investigators described as “pill mills.”
I am not a fan of the death penalty but not for the usual reasons. As someone who has sat through murder trials, walked down death row, interviewed condemned killers, actually sat in the electric chair and witnessed an execution – I have decided that capital punishment is futile, immoral and a monumental waste of tax-dollars.
If you really want to punish someone, lock them in a 6 x 9 foot cell for 30 or 40 years. The average length of stay on Florida’s death row is 13 years and many killers will tell you they would prefer to die than live out their lives in a box.
Although research has shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent, I suspect that executing a physician who knowingly prescribed massive doses of drugs to an addict who then overdosed, would be a deterrent to other physicians. A really, really big deterrent.
UPDATE: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
In response to my blog posted yesterday, I received an email this afternoon from a spokeswoman at NBC. Thank you, Brian, for doing the right thing. It means a lot to me – as both a journalist and a person with two mental illnesses. Below is the text of the email from the NBC spokeswoman:
Brian immediately realized the error of his words, and he updated the broadcast to omit that phrase for later feeds. The corrected video that aired in the rest of the country that night is online here. We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks and hope you can forgive the mistake.
As the recent furor over remarks made by Dr. Phil and news-anchor Brian Williams about mental illness seems to have subsided, I can’t help but wonder about the discussions that the shows’ producers had about how to respond to the outcry.
I am a journalist – a newspaper reporter – not a high-profile, well-paid network news anchor – like Brian Williams – who for much of his career has merely read the news that other journalists have gathered and reported. I am also mentally ill. I have alcoholism and bipolar disorder II, also known as hypo-mania.
In the last month we have heard Dr. Phil, the daytime talk-show host/psychologist who likes to “get real,” and NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams, each make a major semantic faux pas on national television.
Dr. Phil calmed a guest’s worries by telling her that her obsession did not mean that she was “insane” because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” Then Brian Williams described Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women captive and raped them for years, as “arguably the face of mental illness.”
I am not surprised the Dr. Phil has not apologized or retracted or even tried to explain his remarks despite calls for him to do so by the country’s major mental health organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. Dr. Phil is a talk-show host who routinely sacrifices his credibility in the name of ratings. Unfortunately, we have come to expect those kinds of reckless comments from television personalities.
But Brian Williams’ silence is disturbing. I would like to know if his silence is voluntary or imposed upon him by his producers and network officials. I know how these discussions and decisions go because in my 30+ years as a journalist, I have been in them. While the reporter has a say, the editors, producers, lawyers and company officials make the final decision.