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.



    • Joel Nowak says

      I am sure others will dispute the exact percentage but it doesn’t sound surprising to me. I am sure it is very high.

  1. Over9000 says

    “Vicious,” not “viscous.” “Viscous” means “having a thick, sticky consistency.” Just FYI. :)

      • Malcolm says

        ..but did allow a transgender character to commit suicide in the biggest national TV soap this week (Coronation Street)….. – albeit as a result of her ‘terminal illness’.
        We have a health service who need to save money, so have been running a media blitz on ‘having a good death’ for a few years , extolling the virtues of euthanasia…having a character in a soap kill themselves is thought to be a great way to encourage people to support it by those at the top I guess.

        • Joel Nowak says

          Thanks for the link. I have never watched Coronation Street (being in the US) although have heard about it for years. I just noticed that it is on Netflix or Hulu so I was actually planning on checking it out. I had no idea about this character or the storyline. If there is indeed a concerted effort to “sell” the idea of euthanasia through the media that is really creepy. And I agree that it is unfortunate that this character is also trans. I have no idea what is really going on in Europe with euthanasia. I personally believe that if a person has a terminal illness and is suffering unbearable physical pain it should be a person’s right to choose the time and manner of their death. But I was astonished by the Nathan Verhelst case – which seemed to cross a very significant ethical line that I am definitely uncomfortable with. In the US the possibility of our government establishing “death panels” to select who will live or die has been used by some as an argument against Obamacare. Although there are many good criticisms out there of that program – to me this one has been more on par with the claim that our president is from Kenya. But I think that the concept that there might be an attempt to encourage population segments that negatively impact the healthcare industry’s profit margins to “opt out” of life altogether is something to keep an eye on. The Verhelst case and other reports do make me wonder if we are already seeing this in Europe. Again – I am not really plugged in with what is going on over there so I can’t judge for myself. Your report though does not sound encouraging. Thanks for posting Malcolm.