Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Suicide in the Spotlight

When media coverage of suicide is too much

When your area of expertise is suicide prevention, it’s actually not all that fun to have the topic of dinner party conversation be your area of expertise.

That was most certainly the case last weekend, following the death by suicide of Jacintha Saldhana, the nurse who transferred the now-famous prank call to Kate Middleton’s nurse during the princess’s recent hospitalization.

I’ve struggled over the past several days thinking about how to write about yet another celebrity-related suicide. In both this case and the case of Jovan Belcher, I have found myself thinking how little we, the public, know about the inner lives of either of these individuals. Yet because of their high-profile deaths, their names slip off our tongues as if we were much, much closer.

Collectively, we speculate on what caused these deaths. When we’re being particularly good, we ask ourselves if anything could have been done to prevent them.

But, I wonder what would happen if we didn’t know about them?

I tend to think that it’s a good thing for the suicide prevention movement to have suicide in the news, as it offers an opportunity for public discourse on a subject that’s often kept hush-hush. But as I’ve watched and listened over the past couple of weeks, while, yes, part of the conversation is about prevention, there’s something very uncomfortable about the voyeuristic nature of what’s being said.

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Suicide is such a shocking cause of death, so often shrouded in mystery, that it isn’t surprisng that we ask a lot of questions when it happens in ways that make it public. The suicide of a famous person, or a person connected to a famous person, or a person who dies in a public place give us a way to talk about something that I’m not sure we would talk about otherwise.

No doubt the families and friends of individuals who’ve died by suicide also ask “Why?” But, the way that we, the public, ask is different. We ask through blog posts and 140-character tweets, through short news analyses and running commentary on morning radio talk shows. We act like experts whether or not we have expertise.

Everybody, myself included, wants to have something to say about a high-profile death by suicide. So, what can we say that will make a true difference, rather than just further the gossip?

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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