Suicide Watch

Covering death during a financial crisis

Covering suicides has long been considered a delicate subject among newspaper editors. There are internal and industry-wide guidelines that offer suggestions for treating the subject carefully; the aim of these considerations is to prevent additional suicides via the so-called “copycat effect.”

Because of this, suicide stories are rare in the media, with most publications avoiding them unless the deceased is well known, the suicide happens in a public place, or if the context for the piece is a trend-driven and/or a prevention-minded package.

Concurrent with the international financial crisis, reports of suicides are emerging in the world’s newspapers. As early as July, The Times-Tribune of Pennsylvania linked a murder-suicide to an imminent loss of the protagonist’s home. Last week, a California man killed himself and his family , noting he was “broke” in a suicide note. And, in India, a share broker killed himself and his family in a gas explosion.

Such reports, along with a recent Explainer column at Slate, “Why aren’t we seeing more suicides on Wall Street?”, reveal how our minds naturally associate suicide and financial ruin.

Historically speaking, however, Loren Coleman, author of The Copycat Effect, says on his blog that the link between 1929’s financial crisis and suicide is an urban legend: “The 1929 historical tale of guys jumping out of buildings in the opening hours of the Great Depression is part of the ongoing urban legend associated with dark financial days. But an actual look at the data shows something else, entirely.” It simply isn’t true.

Coleman goes on the cite The Great Crash, 1929, a book by economist John Kenneth Galbraith whose analysis of death stats revealed that the “U.S. suicide rate increased steadily between 1925 and 1932, during October and November of 1929, the number of suicides was low.”

Still, the myth is deeply entrenched, and the prominence of the current financial crisis makes editors more likely to cover suicide stories they might otherwise avoid. Bankruptcy-related suicides undoubtedly happen year-round, but they are much more likely to make the nightly news now that they fit with the meltdown narrative.

The problem isn’t just that these types of stories seize on a dubious trend. In fact, journalism that creates a link between a specific problem (the financial crisis) and suicide (as the solution) is actually dangerous, because, according to the World Health Organization and other mental health agencues, it encourages copycat behavior. The Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program points out that “suicide is seldom the result of a single event. Rather, it is the rare act of a troubled person struggling with complex circumstances.” But the finance-suicide coverage can fail to paint that picture.

An article on Poynter adds that “it’s important to avoid romanticizing suicide or suggesting it’s been used to ‘solve’ a problem,” so as to not lead others into thinking that suicide can be a solution for them as well.

Speaking to the current crisis, Coleman recommends caution:

Will there be an increase in actual suicides “caused” by or in the wake of the Great Crash of 2008? It is highly doubtful.

Nevertheless, look for a dramatic spike in reporting on every stockbroker and bankrupt CEO who dies by suicide.

What we may see, however, are some bizarre suicides and violent crimes continuing through October (i.e. copycats of the strange bus stabbings and the Norwegian school shooting incident), plus a very dangerous March-April in 2009, in the schools and colleges. The mainstream vs Wall Street impact may be rather real and dramatic in terms of the copycat ripple effect that bounces from the fall to spring.

None of this is to suggest that suicide ought never to be covered. But given the alarmist language that characterizes much of today’s financial coverage, papers must show thoughtful restraint, and avoid the “causation” trap between financial ruin and suicide. Individuals who are mentally ill to begin with may reach the false conclusion that suicide is the only remedy for their troubles. But the press mustn’t suggest that this is the case. Tread lightly.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.