By Viknesh Naidu, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health
The recent death of a 15-year-old boy from Texas has been attributed to the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ – a game originating in Russia via social media. This consists of a series of tasks involving destructive behaviour over a 50-day period, ending with the participant taking their own life.
On 12th July 2017, the above and several other cases were examined in an event celebrating Headline‘s 10 years in operation: A Discussion of Mental Health and Suicide in the Media – Past, Present and Future at The Hilton Hotel in Dublin. Headline is Ireland’s national media monitoring programme aimed at promoting responsible and accurate coverage of mental health and suicide-related issues.
The event was hosted by John Saunders, Director of Headline and CEO of Shine, a national organisation dedicated to empowering individuals living with mental illness. Following a brief introduction, Headline’s contribution to Connecting for Life, Ireland’s Suicide Prevention Strategy, was highlighted by the Director of the National Office of Suicide Prevention (NOSP), Gerry Raleigh. Mr. Raleigh spoke about how print media, though still relevant, is less influential than radio, television and the internet, among youth. He praised the quality of reporting in Ireland thus far, reflecting that, “there was lots of work done, (and) lots more to continue.”
Next, Dr. Brian Farrell, Dublin District Coroner Emeritus, explained his independent role as a medicolegal death investigator in suicides and homicides, in addition to providing investigations for the families involved. Dr. Farrell divulged upon the coroner system, the importance of suicidal intent and history of self-harm, public inquests, as well as the doctor’s duty in certifying cause of death. Until 1994, suicide in Ireland was considered a crime, hence justifying why the phrase ‘death by suicide’ is chosen over ‘committing suicide.’
Professor Ella Arensman, Scientific Director of the National Suicide Research Foundation (NSRF) and Research Professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College Cork, illustrated the impact of media reporting of suicide. An international and historical view from the 1700s onwards was given to emphasise the universality of the issue. Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 was followed by a 12% rise in suicides, while German goalkeeper Robert Enke’s railway suicide in 2009 led to a daily increase by 81%. Vivid imagery, neglect in addressing underlying issues, and extended portrayal of bereavement shown in the 2017 television series, 13 Reasons Why, have been linked to suicide pacts among young girls in Austria. These contagion phenomena are termed ‘copycat’ suicides. Professor Arensman added that media reporting must be evidence-based without sensationalism and unnecessary details, keeping in mind grieving families. She stressed that more attention needs to be given to protective measures, knowing the imperative actions when faced with a depressed loved one, and direction to helplines like Samaritans.
The final speaker was Jen Ronan, Panellist on TV3’s The Elaine Show and See Change Ambassador, whose blog discusses living with depression. She underlined the value of open dialogue without fear and the need for more personal stories, in view of reducing stigma.
Before the Headline Media Awards were presented, an interactive Q&A session with all four speakers was opened to the audience. Professor Arensman had earlier spoken on how swiftly inaccurate information can spread on Twitter, and a pertinent question was asked of its regulation. Ms. Ronan replied that the public should check the reliability of their sources and be accountable, as monitoring of all social media is difficult.
The topic of suicide presents a great challenge, but one that can be met with proactive education, free discussion and safe reporting.
[Editor’s note: For more information on Headline, please visit their webpage, and Twitter. You can find more discussions from the Headline 10 year event using the hashtag #notjustaheadline on Twitter.]
Dr Viknesh Naidu, MBBS, is a medical officer with 5 years’ experience in psychiatry and mental health in his home country of Malaysia. He has previously managed patients in the community setting, and treated children with mental illness, as well as dual-diagnosis cases (individuals with both substance use and mental disorder). He has also volunteered in orphanages, health centres and outreach programmes for rural communities in Nairobi, Kenya. Hailing from Johor Bahru, Peninsular Malaysia’s southernmost city, he completed a Masters in Global Health in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. In his spare time, he enjoys travelling, writing blogs, watching films and getting better acquainted with Irish culture.