Expert says media dangerously ignore mental illness in coverage of gay teen suicides

Liz Goodwin
The Upshot

News accounts have focused public attention on a recent spate of gay young people taking their own lives in response to taunting related to their sexuality. One side-effect of the coverage has been increased discussion of the problem of anti-gay bullying. The White House, celebrities, talk-show hosts, and cable-news pundits have all chimed in on the tragic deaths.

But what if the way we're talking about these suicides could actually be encouraging vulnerable young people to copycat the tragic behavior?

That's what worries Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. By putting forth bullying as a "cause" of suicide and ignoring underlying mental-health issues that are present in 90 percent of people who die by suicide, the national media may be "normalizing" suicide as a rational response to bullying. For youth already at risk, this could be a dangerous message.

Here's an example. A recent headline on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website reads: "City council meeting results in gay teen suicide." The story is about the death of Zach Harrington, an openly gay teen living in Norman, Oklahoma. His sister told the Norman Transcript that a week before he took his own life, Harrington had gone to a city council meeting to advocate for them to recognize October as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) history month. Harrington's family says the three-hour council debate was "toxic," even though the final vote endorsed the measure, and that Harrington was very hurt by the event.

So is it fair to write that the meeting "resulted" in a suicide?

Not really. Suicides are complex, Haas says, and inadvertently portraying them as a rational response to a single incident or problem can lead already vulnerable people to identify with and copy the behavior. This makes for an unusually fine line between raising awareness about an issue and sensationalizing it.

"We know quite a bit about what kinds of media stories can encourage copycat suicides," Haas says. Stories depicting the person who's died by suicide as very sympathetic can inadvertently encourage vulnerable young people to identify with him or her.

"There's an identification there that could lead you to feel, well, 'My goodness, this person was feeling the same thing that I'm feeling, and he took his life.' It kind of normalizes suicide," she says. "It presents it as a sort of an understandable if not socially acceptable response to a problem. If a story is presented from the viewpoint of the mental disorders that commonly lead to suicide, it's much less likely to have that kind of identification that leads young people to copy the behavior."

A public-radio reporter wrote that when reporters begin to write about the motivations that might prompt an individual to commit suicide, "It erases the line that separates motivation from rationality, making suicide seem like an understandable, if not unavoidable, culmination of a person's experience. Suicide is not a rational act. It is an act of desperation, carried out after a monumental struggle."

Words like "epidemic" and "rash" to describe an increase in suicides can also lead to copycat behavior, Haas says.

The executive director of the anti-bullying Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Dr. Eliza Byard, says that her group is careful to never say that bullying caused someone to die by suicide.

"I find it very hard to look at a headline that makes a more direct or simple one-to-one relationship [between bullying and suicide], or that details some of the more horrifying details of any particular case," she says. "Those feel awful."

Byard also says there hasn't been enough mention of mental illness in media coverage, though it can be difficult for reporters to discuss mental illness in cases when it's gone undiagnosed. She prefers stories that focus not on the young people who died but on the solutions to some of the problems they faced.

"It's not about martyrdom, it's not about a sort of morbid recapitulation of these stories over and over again. Once people come to grips with the consequences, then you move on to what needs to happen now to make it better today," she says. "That kind of emphasis has been really helpful, where stories focus on the collective work of making things better."

That's one of the reasons Haas has high praise for the "It Gets Better" campaign, a growing collection of YouTube videos from around the world telling LGBT young people their lives will improve, and that they're not alone.

(Photo of vigil at Rutgers University for Tyler Clementi: AP)