Covering Teen Suicide: One Paper’s Decision
Details spark emotion in a story.
But what happens when the details could cause vulnerable kids to kill themselves?
Few newspapers write about suicides because of "suicide contagion" or the possibility of prompting copycats. Others consider the issue a private matter, believing most families don't want to talk about why a loved one chose to end their life.
I understood those concerns but I couldn't ignore the death of Timmy Thompson.
Timmy shot himself on a warm July evening during the summer of 2004. He was 18, a recent high school graduate and one of the most popular kids in Cape Elizabeth, a small seaside town in Maine.
His death confused and scared many of his friends. They couldn't understand how this young man with so much promise could kill himself.
The night he died, some 200 teenagers painted a large roadside boulder with the words: "In loving memory of Tim Thompson." The teens left sports jerseys, flowers, and mementos of what Timmy loved in life: Moxie soda bottles, gummy fish candy, his soccer cleats.
Timmy's private death had become public. Thousands of drivers passed by the 20 by 30-foot boulder each day, asking: "Who was Timmy Thompson?"
School social workers warned me: "You know about the copycat effect don't you? You could cause more suicides."I asked myself that same question and began talking to people in town about Timmy's death. Early on, my interviews stirred surprise and concern.
School social workers warned me: "You know about the copycat effect don't you? You could cause more suicides."
Suicide prevention experts told me that sensational media reports on suicides could result in suicide contagion or copycats. People who are mentally unstable, especially impulsive teenagers, are predisposed to suicide. If they read or view reports about someone killing themselves, they may interpret the suicide as a solution to their problems or a way to gain attention.
Coverage of celebrity suicide is especially dangerous, says Alan Berman, director of the American Association of Suicidology.
"Vulnerable people who have psychiatric illnesses look up to celebrities or people they idolize and they will imitate their actions," Berman said. "When Marilyn Monroe killed herself, there was a rise in the suicides of young women."
The words of these suicide experts chilled me but I still believed Timmy's story needed to be told. My editors at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram agreed.
Maine has the highest youth suicide rate in New England and is above the national rate. Timmy's family was also unusual. His parents refused to isolate in their grief. They knew they needed to get help not only for themselves and their four surviving children, but for Timmy's friends, his teachers and the town.
Timmy's dad stood up at one town counseling session that drew 300 people and explained: "I am not ashamed of my son. He died of an illness. He was suffering from depression."
Though I was committed to covering Timmy's story, I soon learned that delving into a suicide, especially the death of a teenager, would test my reporting instincts and writing skills.
Praying for more good than harm
During the months that I reported on Timmy's death and a three-day series on teen suicide, I silently prayed that my stories would do more good than harm.
I would also confront many stereotypes about suicide, a word that means self-murder, an act that some religious faiths once equated with eternal banishment from heaven.
American Association of Suicidology Director Alan Berman told me that centuries ago, suicide victims sometimes had their hands cut off or stakes put through their hearts. They were also buried at crossroads, so their tainted souls would be forever beaten down.
As I began talking to Timmy's friends and family, I also spoke with several national suicide prevention experts like Berman. They warned me that every word I chose, every detail I used could have dire consequences.
My articles, they explained, could prompt other vulnerable kids to take their own lives. They cautioned that details of Timmy's death should not be used because it could cause other depressed youths to kill themselves.
They also said that I should be careful not to glamorize Timmy's suicide or to simplify the reason he killed himself.
They reminded me that my word choice also needed to be thoughtful. Using the phrase "committed suicide," connoted criminal or sinful behavior. They urged me to use "died by suicide" instead.
Using the term "successful suicide" was also foolish because it mistakenly inferred that the act had been a success.
In the end, my editors and I agreed we would be cautious but would still tell Timmy's story truthfully and with integrity.Most of their advice made sense to me. But some of it went against my reporter's instinct. Powerful details meant the difference between a story that gripped the reader and one that fell flat.
In the end, my editors and I agreed we would be cautious but would still tell Timmy's story truthfully and with integrity.
Many kids in Cape Elizabeth mistakenly believed Timmy killed himself over a break-up with his girlfriend. But suicide is rarely completed because of one traumatic incident. It is often the result of many stresses that prompt a mental illness such as depression or bi-polar disorder to worsen.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of the people who kill themselves have a serious mental illness, which is often undiagnosed.
Though I did write that Timmy and his girlfriend had broken up I did not dwell on the incident because it was one of many stresses he had faced in the last three months of his life.
Timmy had just graduated from high school. His beloved school lacrosse team, had lost the state championship, a loss that devastated Timmy. He was preparing to attend a college prep school, something he had mixed feelings about.
And he had recently gone off medication he had taken for most of his life for attention deficit disorder.
While I included the detail that Timmy and his girlfriend broke up and that he was upset about losing the lacrosse game, I also explained that Timmy had been acting erratically since his May 1st birthday when he turned 18. It was then that he had decided to stop taking medication for his attention deficit disorder. The medication, he said, made him "too hyper."
As I spoke with Timmy's friends and his family, I learned that Timmy had struggled with depression in the months before his death. His doctors considered the possibility that he also suffered from bi-polar disorder.
Timmy kept his illness secret from many of his buddies. Few knew he suffered a psychotic break and spent a weekend in a psychiatric hospital a month before he died.
Time spent with parents
I spent many hours with Timmy's parents learning about their son's life and the days that lead to his death.
They told me how they raced to get their son help and how three days before his death, Timmy adamantly told his counselor that he was not suicidal.
His parents painfully recounted the Saturday afternoon Timmy killed himself. The entire family, Timmy's parents and his four siblings, were home that July evening. Timmy had spent much of the day in the bathroom, complaining of stomach problems.
Just before dinner, Timmy's dad checked on his son. Timmy told his father he was OK. Ten minutes later, his father heard a loud boom.
He ran to the bathroom and found his son. Timmy lay against the tub. "My God, he's fallen and hit his head," his dad thought.
Then his father smelt the gun powder. He saw the handgun in the sink.
Suicide experts would have preferred that I leave out the scene describing Timmy's death. But I felt the gun was an important part of the story.Timmy's dad had bought the firearm years ago for security at his office. He had recently hid the gun in the family attic and the ammunition in his sock drawer.
Suicide experts would have preferred that I leave out the scene describing Timmy's death. But I felt the gun was an important part of the story. Firearms are used in about half of all teen suicides in Maine, as they are nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Hangings and poisonings, the CDC says, are the second and third most common means of suicide.
After talking with my editors, we agreed to include the scene but eliminate the detail about the gunpowder. It seemed too graphic and we worried that it could incite a vulnerable teen to imitate Timmy's act.
Other details prompted debate too. Many of Timmy's friends had idolized him and after his death, several of his buddies got tattoos with Timmy's initials: "TLT." A half dozen girls bought necklaces with silver hearts and had them engraved: "TLT forever."
Not using these details was an easy choice. Though the teens explained to me that the tattoos and necklaces were meant to celebrate Timmy’s life, I could see where a fragile and unstable youth would think otherwise, believing that the jewelry and body art glamorized Timmy's suicide.
The experts had warned me that romanticizing Timmy's death or depicting him as a hero, may prompt other depressed or ill teens to seek similar popularity by killing themselves.
Suicide copycat research also showed that dramatizing suicide with photographs of the victim's gravesite, funeral or a public memorial could encourage other youths to view suicide as a way of gaining attention.
While we didn't use photographs of Timmy's funeral or his gravesite, we did run a photograph of the boulder that the teens had painted. The rock became a public place for Timmy's friends, family and teachers to gather and grieve. They painted messages, wrote poems and lit candles.
Thousands of people had driven by that boulder. To ignore it, would have left a big hole in the story.
I described the rock in the story and we ran a photo of it on the inside pages rather than on the front page. Out front, on A1, we ran a photo of Timmy's family. It was taken while they were on vacation in Venezuela, a month before Timmy's death. It showed them all standing on a boat, hugging one another, laughing. The sun lit their faces and a turquoise sea rippled behind them. The headline beneath the photo read: "When death comes too soon."
The suicide prevention experts had cautioned that the word suicide not be used in the headline because it could trigger other fragile youths to pursue front-page coverage by ending their lives.
Along with writing stories about Timmy and Maine's high teen suicide rates, my three-day series included contacts for parents and kids, who needed help. The paper listed phone numbers, Web sites of counseling agencies, mental health advocates. We also posted the warning signs for suicide and depression.
I felt confident that everyone at my newspaper, the editors and copy-editors had handled the stories with care and sensitivity. But still the fear of suicide copycats haunted me.
I couldn't sleep the night before the stories on Timmy appeared in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in November 2004.
Positive response to the series
The response to the series was overwhelmingly positive. Timmy's family felt it treated their son's story with dignity and explained how he grew rapidly ill. The newspaper received more than 200 letters and e-mails.
Many of the letters thanked the paper for writing about such a difficult topic. Some of the e-mails were from teenagers who had lost a friend to suicide and wanted to talk about it.
Parents wrote about their own pain after their children had either attempted suicide or had killed themselves.
A few e-mails said we shouldn't have written about Timmy or suicide. One man criticized me for 'making Timmy a poster child for anti-depressants and told me: "Burn in hell, you awful, awful person."
Maine's governor initiated a task force to figure out ways to reduce the state's high teen suicide rate. He also ordered every state agency to come up with a plan on how they can help prevent young people from taking their own lives.
A couple days after the series appeared, a counselor told me that a middle-aged woman in his group therapy session had read Timmy's stories. The woman also lived with bi-polar disorder. She told her counselor: "If I kill myself, then my community will show they love me like they did with Timmy."
Thankfully, the counselor talked to her and dissuaded her from taking her own life.
Two days later, Frank Campbell, a national suicide prevention expert from Baton Rouge, told me he had read my series. "You will never know how many lives you saved," he said. "You have started a conversation about suicide that is long over due."
Timmy's friends said they liked the story. It gave them a better understanding of how sick Timmy was and how his illness caused him to complete such a tragic act.
I now know that writing about suicide doesn't cause suicide. But I also know that reporters and newspapers must take great care when covering stories about self-murder.
Still, it is a story that should be told. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 people kill themselves every year.
Suicide, the CDC says, is the third-leading cause of death for young people nationally, after accidents and homicides. In Maine, it is the second-leading cause of death for youths.
Yet suicide remains a taboo topic for families, communities, and newspapers.
It's been four months since I wrote Timmy's story. I find myself reading the obituary pages now. I look at photographs, the faces of young and old, and I read the description of how they died. When there is no explanation of death, instead a vague sentence that says the deceased died suddenly at home, I have a hunch it is likely suicide.
I am always struck by their ages. Young kids in their teens. Young people in their 20's and 30's. I stare at their faces and I wonder about the details.
Barbara Walsh is a staff Writer at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.