Trans Suicide and Ethical Communication

Over the past few days I have been thinking a lot about the “Dr. V.” story and the intense discussions regarding the ethics of the piece’s reporting. It has been encouraging to see so many media organizations (including the one that published the original story) and reporters doing a lot of soul searching. This was a tragic and sad death.

Josh Levin’s thoughtful editorial on Slate contained a link to The Tampa Bay Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton’s important piece about the suicide of a woman she was doing a story about on the eve of the publication of that story. (It is a very good read.)

At the end of her piece she contains includes a number of suicide prevention resources, including some ethical guidelines for reporters to consider when reporting suicides. There are many different (but essentially similar) versions of these guidelines for various organizations but they are all pretty similar. I like how these sound so I want to include them here.

• Avoid romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act.

• Don’t dramatize the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers, classmates or members of the community. This may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation.

• Details about the method of suicide can encourage vulnerable people to imitate it. While reporters may need to provide a description of the cause of death, they should not provide a “how to” guide.

• Avoid oversimplifying the causes of suicides, murder-suicides or suicide pacts, and avoid presenting them as inexplicable or unavoidable. Social conditions alone do not explain a suicide. The cause is invariably more complicated than a recent painful event such as a romantic breakup or the loss of a job. More than 90 percent of suicide victims have a significant psychiatric illness at the time of their death. Mood disorders and substance abuse are the two most common.

• Conveying that effective treatments for most of these conditions are available (but often not utilized) may encourage those with such problems to seek help.

I believe that all responsible journalists should follow these or similar guidelines. But I also believe that these guidelines are helpful to anyone who is blogging, commenting or tweeting on the web. We demand that journalists follow strict ethical standards but so many of us do not take the time to be mindful in what we ourselves are putting out there for others to read.

I think that this is a particular problem in the trans community. Because of the sad reality that the rate of suicide within the trans community is so high, it is something that has to be discussed. It can’t be avoided. But I feel that how it is spoken about within the community has to some degree helped to “normalize” it amongst its members. I see this as a vicious cycle that actually is leading to more suicides.

The American Society for Suicide Prevention has a helpful PDF for how to talk cover suicides. It includes some important guidelines for bloggers and “citizen journalists” that I think are also helpful.

• Bloggers, citizen journalists and public commentators can help reduce risk of contagion with posts or links to treatment services, warning signs and suicide hotlines.
• Include stories of hope and recovery, information on how to overcome suicidal thinking and increase coping skills.
• The potential for online reports, photos/videos and stories to go viral makes it vital that online coverage of suicide follow site or industry safety recommendations.
• Social networking sites often become memorials to the deceased and should be monitored for hurtful comments and for statements that others are considering suicide. Message board guidelines, policies and procedures could support removal of inappropriate and/or insensitive posts.

I think many us can do a better job in practicing mindful speech while online. I know that I still don’t always get this right but that doesn’t mean I can’t stop trying.