Sunday, 8 July 2012

The dangers of making suicide a bright pink matter

I was reading through my twitter timeline yesterday and noticed somebody had tweeted a picture of a magazine cover with the headline “suicide drama” in bright pink capital letters, followed by an exclamation mark.

It was a TV guide mag and the cover referred to a soap’s plot, where apparently a body has been found. I don’t know exactly. But I do remember feeling sick for a second when I opened the picture.

Everyone, everywhere, has a fascination with death, that manifests itself in one way or another. In Brazil, we feed that fascination with stories of violence, so common pretty much all over the country. The very fact that death and its reporting is so ordinary takes away some of the need for gory details - as a society, we’re way overexposed to death and tales of human cruelty to get hung up on every single detail of crime and tragedy.

Of course we still are fascinated, and share morbid curiosity with the rest of the human race, but it usually takes a bizarre crime or tragedy to trigger the will to know more.

The UK is much smaller, more compact, and safer than Brazil. There is violence and crime – I have sat through quite a few murder trials and inquests during my time as a local reporter here – but not on the same scale as in Rio, for instance, so the appetite for details is much higher. Understandably.

The one thing I struggle to come to terms with, though, is the curiosity and fascination of the British press and public with suicide.

I’ve had to cover a few suicides as a local reporter. Spoke to families, asked difficult questions, reported inquests, was given pictures of their loved ones, and wrote their stories. I did my job and did it as well as I could. But every time I think about how much people want to know about the circumstances in which, and motives why, someone has taken their own life, I find that curiosity harder to understand.

When I was 23 and working at Jornal O Dia, something happened. I was at work one evening and the reporter who sat opposite me had a phone call from her maid, who had gone out to buy milk and saw someone who had jumped off a building. The maid told the reporter all the gory details of what she had seen, and they were duly repeated once the phone call was over.

I remember being a bit horrified, and searching my mind for people I knew who lived in the area. I just had a bad feeling, but it soon passed.

The next morning, I woke up with a phone call from a friend at 9ish. I was very tired – hadn’t finished my shift until late the night before – so couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. All I could hear was “… killed herself”. I asked him to repeat that three times, until I heard: “Cecilia killed herself”.

And then the penny dropped.

I told him the story I had heard the evening before, and he confirmed what I’d feared.

Cecilia was 21 and incredibly bright and beautiful. I loved her to bits. And this is all I’m going to tell you about her. I know our friends might read this, and I’ve decided I have no right to tell her story, the story I know, made of facts, memories and conjectures.

A few days after that, I was told that a team from one of our most outrageous tabloids, O Povo, had been to the scene of my friend’s death and taken pictures. That only added to the pain.

In Brazil, mainstream newspapers have a gentlemen’s agreement not to routinely publish suspected suicides, unless police decide to investigate or the person is somebody in public office or the public eye. We don’t have a coroner’s court, so police give the verdict either after examining the scene, or after a pathologist’s report, if one is necessary. In general, no one, besides family and close friends, wants to know.

It could be because Brazil is a big Catholic country and suicide is frowned upon by the church. Which makes it embarrassing for families if a loved one dies in such circumstances. It could be that Brazilians don’t give mental health issues the attention they require and don’t raise the awareness they deserve.

I’m not suggesting for a second that newspapers in the UK should stop covering suicides. The social and cultural landscape of Britain is obviously very different from that of Brazil, and mental health issues and its consequences are spoken about much more openly here.

But I sometimes wonder if wealth of detail, speculation, sensationalising, and hounding of families, are absolutely necessary, and if they serve a purpose other than to shock and sell newspapers.

Truth is, the impact suicide can have on someone else on the brink of a mental breakdown can be severely underestimated.

When Cecilia died, I had been seeing a psychoanalyst because I was severely depressed. She was a friend, and we were young, so her death alone had an enormous impact on my state of mind. But the circumstances were extremely painful, difficult to accept and understand, and they pushed me right to the edge. Thankfully, I’m better now – it’s been a slow recovery, and anyone who has been there knows how hard it is to be confident you’re out of the woods forever.

Bottom line being, to me, suicide is still a delicate matter, and I’m positive it will always be. I find its trivialisation both outrageous and hard to understand. There is no glamour in suicide - just pain, anger, and confusion. Soaps shouldn’t exploit it and magazines shouldn’t sensationalise it.

Anyone who considers it should seek help. Anyone who feels they need to know more about how someone else died and why should wipe that thought off their minds. Believe me, you’re better off not thinking about it.

If you’re distressed or feel like you need help, you can talk to Samaritans at any time of the day or night on 08457 90 90 90 in the UK and Northern Ireland, or
1850 60 90 90 in the Republic of Ireland.

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