How to discuss incomprehensible tragedy

A response to the CDC’s investigation in Palo Alto

Note: The author of this article attended Gunn High School, a high school in Palo Alto

In response to an unusually high rate of suicide among teenagers in Palo Alto, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is currently undergoing an investigation of youth suicide in the area. Some articles have already come out discussing this, such as this news coverage from the Stanford Daily, but very few authors know that discussion of suicide in a public forum is potentially dangerous for the public health, and this ignorance is well reflected in articles surrounding this issue. To counteract this, we wish to provide some recommendations to both on-campus publications and campus leaders on how to discuss suicide and suicide clusters in public forums, and possible avenues to take if you or someone you know needs mental care.  

In a paper published by American Behavioral Scientist, it is demonstrated not only that ‘the opportunity for suicide contagion from stories in major newspapers is quite high,’ but also that ‘studies have identified a decrease in suicides following the implementation of media guidelines.’ Here are some considerations to take into account when writing about suicides, from that same article:

  • “Dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates, or community expressions of grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.”
  • “Research indicates that detailed descriptions or pictures of the location or site of a suicide encourage imitation… presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person may encourage identification with the victim.”
  • “Conveying that effective treatments for most of these conditions are available (but underutilized) may encourage those with such problems to seek help”

In the spirit of the last point, we wish to publicize a few mental health resources available at Stanford.

  • CAPS, self-described by director Ronald Albucher as a resource where students can get answers to questions “about mental health treatment, consultation, and assessment for suspected mental health problems,” has undergone significant improvements, including an average reduction in wait time from 9.6 days to 5.9 days in the last year. More info can be found here.
  • The Bridge Peer Counseling Center offers anonymous and confidential 24/7 counseling to members of the greater Stanford community.” More info can be found here. ** **
  • The national suicide hotline can be called at 1-(800)-273-8255. It is staffed 24/7 and it is toll-free.

To those who are struggling: help is available. To those speaking about this contentious issue: you have more power than you think. Mental health issues are gaining some of the respectful publicity they deserve, but they can and should receive more, in responsible ways.

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