Suicide: when the news isn’t fit to print

In places like Camas and Washougal, where residents take pride in sticking together, in supporting their schools and rooting for the wellbeing of every child, losing a young person can be catastrophic.

It hurts the entire community to know that one of their own is gone — that a family is now grieving an unimaginable loss.

As the eyes and ears of this community, we at the Post-Record are not immune to this pain. Although reporters and editors try to shake off the news at the end of the day, it is impossible to leave some things behind. When that happens, we hug our children a little tighter after work. We reflect on the fragility of life.

Typically, a small-town paper like this one would always want to cover the death of a community member — especially a child — in the most skillful and empathetic way possible. We would want to talk to that person’s family and friends. Get photos and attend memorial services.

But when it comes to certain subjects, journalists can do much more harm than good.

Death by suicide is one such subject. In fact, it is at the top of the list.

You may wonder why this is, you may think that covering such deaths is a good way to shed light on the topic of depression or the perfect way to show the deceased’s family that their loved one was important, that they meant something to the community.

All valid points. But research shows that these lines of thinking pale in comparison to what can happen — what has happened in some communities — after news organizations cover local suicides.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), “more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.”

The phenomenon of news coverage contributing to a spike in local deaths by suicide is known as “suicide contagion,” and it is something that every news reporter and editor should take extremely seriously.

The AFSP has developed guidelines for news coverage of death by suicide. According to a New York Times article written shortly after the death of actor Robin Williams in 2014, these guidelines are making a difference: “A study in Vienna documented a significant drop in suicide risk when reporters began adhering to recommendations for coverage.”

These guidelines include listing the warning signs often seen in people thinking about suicide, including: talking about wanting to die; looking for a way to kill oneself; talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose; talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain; talking about being a burden to others; increasing the use of alcohol/drugs; acting anxious, agitated or recklessly; sleeping too little/too much; withdrawing; showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and/or displaying extreme mood swings.

So what can you do if someone you love is showing one of more of these signs? The Foundation recommends the following: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255); take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical professional.

As community journalists, we feel a great responsbility for educating and informing our readers, and for helping this community thrive. There are few things that we will not cover in the best way that our time, resources and abilities allow.

But our first obligation must be to minimize harm. And that is why we will hold firm to our policy of not sensationalizing death by suicide in this community.

Please don’t mistake our silence for a lack of caring.