Journalists continue to struggle with effective, sensitive, and consistent reporting on suicide. In this three-part series, Meg Spratt, with Dart Fellow Liisa Hyvarinen, Dart Executive Committee Chair Emeritus Frank Ochberg, and others, explore the issues and complexities of responsible coverage.
Documentary filmmaker Liisa Hyvarinen has, she says, experienced the best and worst outcomes of clinical depression.
Just days before her 15th birthday, her father — an accomplished professor of physiology, an avid biker, skier, and gardener, a husband and a father of three — killed himself. The morning of his death, Hyvarinen answered the phone and confirmed her father’s suicide to a local reporter.
“He committed suicide after a long clinical depression that, unfortunately, he was not able to find help for,” Hyvarinen says. That one act, the one that ended his life, ultimately defined him — at least to some.
“Every time I disclosed to anyone how my father died, everything that he ever accomplished in life, which was a lot, all of a sudden got completely eclipsed by his one last desperate act,” she says.
But, she adds, “he was so much more than that.” (For more on his life and accomplishments, see Remembering My Father).
Unlike her father, Hyvarinen’s sister, who also has suffered from depression, has sought help. She now leads a productive, and a happy life, Hyvarinen says.
Those deeply personal experiences, along with media coverage of an unrelated high-profile suicide that “devalued the human being that was lost,” ultimately inspired Hyvarinen to produce Silent Screams. The documentary tells individual stories of depression and suicidal tendencies, but also gives much needed context to depression as a social problem — a shared problem.
The media have an opportunity, she says, to tell better, more complete stories — to tell stories about conquering depression.
“I think there’s a great chance of saving lives … there’s a lot of room here in terms of doing stories about mental health issues.”
In Silent Screams, Hyvarinen tells of intimate struggles with depression — including the personal stories of journalist Mike Wallace and of David Smith, former husband of Susan Smith who was convicted of killing her young sons by drowning them in her car in a South Carolina Lake in 1994. (For more, including video excerpts, order information and advice for journalists, see Silent Screams).
Both men, says Hyvarinen, have shown that severe depression can be overcome. David Smith, she says, “was able to go on with his life, battle depression, battle suicidal thoughts, and then make a new life for himself. I think that’s a very powerful message to anyone else who might have these thoughts.”
She adds: “I think Wallace and Smith both were on the leading edge of famous people being willing to talk about their private pain … because they both believe that by talking about it they can help other people.”
Hyvarinen also believes that it is crucial to place these stories into social and cultural context. Silent Screams, for instance, includes details from the 1999 Surgeon General’s Call to Action Against Suicide, information about suicide among teenagers and in the African-American Community, and about organizations formed to prevent suicide.
Indeed, studies show that suicide is a particular problem among certain segments of society. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, suicide rates generally increase with age and are highest among Americans over 65. On the other end of the age spectrum, 15 percent of suicides in 2000 were by people younger than 25. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between 15 and 24 years old, with gay youths being at particular risk. Suicide rates are disproportionately high among young male Native Americans and have recently increased among young black males. And, frighteningly, suicide has risen dramatically in recent years among children between 10 and 14.
Clinical psychiatrist Frank Ochberg says it’s important for journalists to understand the clinical definition of depression, effective therapies, and the populations most at risk for suicide (For more, see What Journalists Should Know).
Yet this sort of demographic context, and the problem of cultural isolation, is rarely seen in daily news coverage.
“What media coverage hasn’t done,” says Hyvarinen, “is put this very important medical story into a perspective. There are hundreds of thousands of people who attempt (suicide) every year. And these are treatable illnesses, mostly depression. Because of the stigma attached to the subject people don’t go and get help.”