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Why you don’t know how much mental illness and drug abuse is really in your community

It’s Sunday night. I am sitting at my desk in the newsroom. I am a reporter and every couple of months I pull a weekend shift. The newsroom is quiet and I can hear the police scanners clearly.NEWS

During the day, with all that’s going on in the newsroom, the scanners are just white noise. The cop reporters pay attention but to the rest of us, they are annoying.

If you want an idea of how much mental illness and substance abuse is out there, listen to the police scanners in a major metropolitan area, like South Florida, where I work. Some agencies use human dispatchers but many of the calls are announced by a computer with a Siri-esque voice.

Rescue 12. Responding to area 19. Overdose intoxication. 123 Main Street. Tac 2a.

Rescue 6. Responding to area 12. Suicide attempt. 456 Main Street. Tac 6.

Even on a slow Sunday night you might get 10-15 seconds when the airwaves are silent. But that is rare. Dispatcher Siri is on the job – describing in her robot voice the tragic realities of mental illness and substance use disorders.

Despite all the overdose and suicide calls I’ve heard today, I won’t write about any of them. The media don’t cover suicides unless it’s a celebrity or the suicide caused a traffic jam. And we certainly don’t cover attempted suicides. As for overdoses, there are just too many and HIPPA prevents us from getting any details anyway.

Once upon a time, some editor somewhere decided that suicides and overdoses are private matters and should not be covered by the media. Why bring more shame and hurt to these people, right? So, we don’t cover your run-of-the mill overdose or suicide.

HELP MEWas this a wise decision? Should we cover suicides like we cover homicides? I don’t know. I see both sides: Why bring more sorrow to grieving families? How can we accurately portray the magnitude of the crisis in mental health care and substance use disorder if we don’t?

What this means for you – the news consumer – is that you have no idea how many people overdose or try to kill themselves. You would be shocked if you knew.

For every fatal overdose and suicide, there are countless non-fatal overdoses and attempted suicides. Those data are nearly impossible to get. I know because we’ve been trying to get hospital admission data for months as part of an investigation I am working and it’s not an easy task.

We gasp when we hear numbers about the rise of heroin overdose deaths. Where I live we’re seeing at least one overdose death everyday. Tragic. But if you want to know the real scope of the problem, we need to see the numbers of non-fatal overdoses and suicide attempts.

The government collects these data but there are very tight restrictions on who can use the data and for what. If some researcher or policy wonk doesn’t slice and dice the data at the hospital level, how will we ever find the hot-spots – communities and neighborhoods that are experiencing higher than average drug overdoses and attempted suicides?

How will we ever come to appreciate the magnitude of people that are suffering?

Listening to the police scanners is not the answer.

DATA dice available from Shutterstock.

Depressed teenage girl available from Shutterstock.

Why you don’t know how much mental illness and drug abuse is really in your community

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2016). Why you don’t know how much mental illness and drug abuse is really in your community. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jan 2016
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