EDITORIAL: Suicides: To cover or not to cover?

News media usually avoid writing about suicides but still reported extensively on the death of Port Coquitlam teen Amanda Todd and her name continues to be mentioned in stories dealing with youth mental health, online luring and bullying.

Obviously, there is huge public interest in her story but many — including Vancouver School Board trustees — say the publicity surrounding Todd’s suicide creates risk for vulnerable youth. It glamourizes suicide, they say, resulting in more suicidal thoughts among young people. The media should follow Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) guidelines, they say, and limit coverage, photos and details while publishing more information about alternatives, such as treatments, and resources.

Concern is justified. According to BC Coroner statistics, on average in a year, 17 kids under 19 kill themselves in B.C. but there are huge swings; in 2009 there were 11 child and youth suicides, in 2010 there were 31.

Copycat suicides may explain the variation in numbers but placing the blame on the traditional media may be misplaced. For the most part, traditional media typically self-censor when it comes to suicide reporting out of sensitivity to the family, concerns about copycats and to stay within the bounds of taste.

But Amanda Todd’s story drew a different level of coverage and here’s why: It was largely told by social media, whose audience and contributors are more open to shocking, revelatory and graphic news. Traditional media had no choice but to follow the story once it had gone viral but for the most part didn’t reveal details about her death and made sure coverage included details on resources available to those experiencing problems.

Still, the ongoing interest in the case makes it an important story for the media — witness the publicity for last week’s Be Someone campaign launch in Port Coquitlam.

Eventually, that interest will wane in the wider world but here in Amanda’s hometown, people are still coming to grips with her death and what caused it. Those issues won’t go away without effort and even, sometimes, media attention.

Yes, there is a risk that other youth will want to emulate her. But there is much to gain by bringing suicide out of the shadows into the public consciousness if it results in more support for struggling kids and their families.

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