“O Captain! My Captain!”- A Call for Media Sensitivity

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We all walked with mournful tread on Monday as news of Robin Williams’ death swept through news outlets. News paraded across television screens and plastered itself on newspaper headlines. The actor had tragically taken his own life last Monday, imposing grief into the lives of all those he had touched throughout his career – myself included. I still remember watching Dead Poets Society for the first time. I’ve always loved books, poetry, and writing. Robin Williams’ performance as John Keating, a word-loving, passionate English teacher inspiring his students to “make their lives extraordinary”, resonated deeply within me. In one of my favorite scenes, Keating huddles his students together and says: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” It is heartbreaking that despite being loved by family, friends, and fans, Williams fell victim to depression, and later, tragically, to suicide. The media did not delay in sharing such news, sparking both grief over his death and outrage over its coverage.

While there are some concerns surrounding news outlets publicizing suicides, the media shouldn’t shy away from sharing mental health issues of celebrities, so long as the reporting is done with reverence and doesn’t romanticize psychosis, depression, or suicide. “He was such a charismatic and beloved figure, that if his death can galvanize our society to act instead of just grieve, it will be a fitting memorial to him,” says Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chairman of psychiatry at New York’s Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, to CNN. Williams could help others understand the disease of depression and offer the opportunity for people to show compassion to those who are currently suffering from depression. Journalists should seize the opportunity to educate the masses on a neglected public health issue, but should do so respectfully.

“Too many people don’t understand depression as a medical issue. They see it as a moral failing,” says Paul Banuski, who survived his second suicide attempt, in an article with USA Today. According to Banuski, this stigma surrounding suicide has hinders the country’s efforts in reducing its occurrence. “When you get cancer, people gather around you and no one is ashamed of having cancer. With mental illness, there’s a stigma,” said Rachel Handler, executive director of behavioral health sciences for Samartian Hospital, in an article for Saratogian. Eliminating such a stigma should be a public health priority, writes Michael Friedman for CNN, and perhaps Robin Williams’ death can help break down barriers hindering efforts of suicide prevention by spurring discussion.

Our country’s suicide rate has always been high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there were roughly 38,000 suicides in 2010, an average of 105 each day. Even though deaths from other causes have fallen, the number of suicides continues to rise, according to Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in an article with USA Today. Suicide now kills twice as many people as homicides. Suicide deaths are especially tragic because they are preventable, not just with counseling and medical treatment, but with technology. Insel says that the country has progressively lowered other major causes of death by implementing preventative measures. For example, to prevent car accidents, cars require seat belts, air bags, and guard rails. Yet, there aren’t more simple measures implemented to prevent suicide, despite suicide taking the lives of more people than car accidents do every year. Insel says there are many ways that the United States could reduce suicide. Barriers around bridges can prevent falling, and carbon monoxide sensors, which shut off the ignition when levels of gas reach toxic levels inside cars, could prevent at least 760 deaths every year. Such technology, says Insel, would cost less than $50 and has been around for 40 years. Lieberman adds, “We know what to do to prevent suicide. We just don’t do it.” Hopefully, with the media spotlight on Robin Williams’ death, attention will center on preventative measures and help raise awareness, per Lieberman’s hope for society to act and not just grieve. His publicized death can be an educational opportunity as a memorial to Williams’ life. Here, the media has the potential to have a grand impact on reducing the suicide rate in America, but that opportunity isn’t always taken.

Some reports of Williams’ passing were gruesome and spared no detail, despite Williams’ grieving wife requesting privacy for the mourning family. In fact, the Marin County Sheriff Office revealed graphic details about the actor’s suicide the day after Williams’ wife made her request, and the graphic news articles reporting these findings began to pop up following the news conference. According to an article written for USA Today, the information revealed during these news conferences is open record and there’s a legal obligation to release the findings of the coroner’s report. Craig Harvey, chief coroner investigator with the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner, said in the article that “all of that information, as uncomfortable as it might be, is fair game.” But, despite the coroner’s office having an obligation to report what they know, journalists do not have that same obligation to relay that information in the same graphic detail, according to Al Tompkins of media watchdog Poynter. Tompkins stresses the need for the media to always ask the question: “What is the journalistic purpose for what we do?” Mental health advocates hope that these reports spur discussion about suicide, not some sick curiosity over graphic details of an actor’s passing. Other media forms that sparked outrage (like this Twitter post) presented suicide as a means to escape problems. Suicide is tragic and preventable, so it’s inaccurate and even offensive to those who love him to romanticize suicide and compare it to a genie finally gaining freedom from a lamp.

Bill Schmitz, a clinical psychologist and president of the American Association of Suicidology, says that research about copycat suicides – emulations of another suicide due to its depiction via some form of media – is unclear, but that the association’s best research suggests that “how” suicide is discussed in the media is more important than “if” it is. However, he asserts that in our “high-tech, social media driven culture”, it’s impossible to avoid such a topic. With the “if” eliminated, the “how” is the primary focus, and Williams’ passing is an opportunity to educate people about the warning signs of suicide.

Robin Williams will always hold a place in many hearts across the world for his ability to bring joy into many households over the years. His passing is tragic, but how journalists handle such a case can change the course of many lives if reporters so choose to write responsibly. Williams puts a face to a neglected public health issue and shows that depression does not discriminate, no matter how funny or successful one may be. With more education and more action taken towards suicide prevention, more lives can be saved and more can pursue the lessons of Williams’ character John Keating: “Carpe diem … Make your lives extraordinary.”


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