Adapted from a presentation given at the CRESP Suicide Summit, August 10th 2015, Canberra, by Dr Jocelyn Lowinger
Should we talk about suicide in the media? Yes– absolutely. And of course we need to do so safely. We are rightly concerned about the effect reading about suicide may have on someone who is at a vulnerable moment in their life. So I applaud the Mindframe guidelines. But I think we need to look a lot more broadly than stories that directly focus on suicide.
We tend to assume that people who are vulnerable are only reading articles with the “S” word in them, and these are the only types of articles that may trigger them. But that’s not true. Images and description of all sorts of atrocities, murders and massacres are very explicit. How triggering is that? Then there’s the way we talk about mistakes and failures. Losing the Ashes caused us “national embarrassment”, was “utter humiliation” and caused by “staggering ineptitude”. If we treat people in the public eye this way, how do we treat ourselves when we fail? How does this type of persistently harsh and negative judgement impact on us?
And we idolise success in a way that can be problematic for those in pain. Recently a small business owner told me how during the collapse of her business during the GFC she had to stop reading articles about business “success” people because they just magnified her sense of failure.
So if we really want to take a person centred approach to talking about suicide in the media, we need to embrace the Mindframe approach, but broaden its way out tofocus on the language we use and the underlying societal values we reflect across all types of stories.
So here’s my vision: I’d love to see the media help lead a dramatic paradigm shift in the way we talk about trauma, pain, mistakes and failure. That would mean publishing stories with a kinder eye built on underlying assumptions that better reflect the truth of things. That means stories built on the truth that psychological pain is inevitable… its part of life and very, very human.
There is no shame in tears. As Viktor Frankl says in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, pain has meaning– it’s about what we owe life rather than what life owes us. (He used this strategy to successfully prevent suicide in the concentration camps.)
It means stories built on the principle that there is no such thing as failure, only feedback and learning. All of us will make mistakes. Our true heroism lies in the recovery from mistakes – not in being immune from them. And it means stories that show the struggle behind dazzling success.
It’s the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal that is truly worth celebrating and that brings meaning, purpose and hope.
How will we know when this is happening? When we see stories about mistakes and failure that play to our kindness, compassion and admiration rather than to our contempt.
Can you imagine what Facebook (as a reflection of our world) would look like then?