How should we talk about suicide? Police chief's comments spark debate
Focus should shift to 'talking smart' about suicide and avoiding ways that increase risks, expert says
A recent cluster of people dying by suicide in Nova Scotia has sparked a public conversation about the issue — and about how officials and media report on people who take their own lives.
Jean-Michel Blais, chief of the Halifax Regional Police, says the long-standing idea that police and the media shouldn't report on suicides lest it provoke copycat suicides needs re-examination.
"We spend a lot of time and effort in policing — and I think in the public in general — talking about pressing concerns such as terrorism, fentanyl, and yet what has remained constant over the years has been the issue of mental health and especially suicide," he said.
Should statistics be regularly reported?
Blais gets police reports every 12 hours on what's happening in the city.
"Really to my horror, I see a consistent pattern of our people coming across individuals who have either gone missing, because they died through suicide, or who have attempted to do so, or who are in the process of doing it."
He's floated the idea of police reporting a monthly compilation of statistics, without identifying people or incidents. But if those figures come alongside the latest stats for break-and-enters and pedestrian-car accidents, it could stigmatize suicide further.
We should "make sure this is a public interest question, not a public curiosity question," he said.
"Over the last eight to ten years we've been talking a lot around mental health, [but] the actual numbers for suicides have not gone down and may even have increased."
While the recent cluster involved three teens in the Sydney area, statistics show 40-something and 50-something men take their own lives in greater numbers each year than any other group.
Statistics Canada figures for 2013 show that 4,054 Canadians took their own life — and 3,041 of them were males.
Suicide rates for all Canadians were stable throughout the 1950s but began to rise steadily in the 1960s and into the 1980s. The rate peaked in 1983, at 15.1 per 100,000.
But rates began to decline in the 1990s. As of 2013, the rate stood at 11.5 per 100,000.
Talking smart about suicide
Dr. Stan Kutcher, a professor in the psychiatry department at Halifax's Dalhousie University, says research shows that how police and media report on suicide can increase the risk of some people taking the same step. But other ways to report could reduce the rate, or have no effect.
Some guidelines on reporting about suicide are well-evidenced and should be followed, Kutcher said.
"Avoid lots of photographs. Don't give lots of graphic descriptions of the methods. Don't intimate that suicide is a reasonable solution to a difficult problem," he said.
Kutcher said research shows that if a suicidal person talks to their doctor or another health professional, they are less likely to hurt themselves.
But there isn't data to show that talking about suicide in the media has the same effect.
"We have pretty good comfort that intervention actually decreases risk for suicide and brings people to more positive outcomes," he said.
"And [we] have decided, without the data to support it, that all talking about suicide is going to have a positive benefit. That's quite a stretch.
"We still have an awful lot to learn about talking smart about suicide and not just talking about suicide."
Focus on hope and help
Starr Dobson is president of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. She also worked as a journalist for two decades. She says regularly releasing suicide statistics could lead to journalists writing more stories about suicide.
"That would fly in the face of media-reporting guidelines that the media shouldn't report on suicides and they should respect the privacy and grief of family members," she says.
She says 25 years ago, if a journalist heard about a suicide, they would by default not see it as a news story.
"Today we do have instances like Rehtaeh Parsons, like Amanda Todd, where the circumstances are kind of extraordinary and the story gets out. I think it's a positive thing, because it gets people talking, but it can also be a negative thing if we start to look it as the typical way to cover the story."
It's very important to ask for that help before it gets to a crisis situation. So many times we think we shouldn't [seek help] because it's not to that point yet,"- Starr Dobson
Mental health issues are often one of many factors that can lead someone to suicide. The Mental Health Foundation focuses on helping people live full lives with mental illness.
Dobson noted Blais has spoken openly about dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. She says such positive examples, where people talk about how mental illness impacted them and how they continued to live rewarding lives, can show people there is hope and help.
"And that it's very important to ask for that help before it gets to a crisis situation. So many times we think we shouldn't [seek help] because it's not to that point yet," she said.
"But if we were to understand that it's not letting it get to that point that's most useful, it would be to everyone's benefit."
If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at (902) 429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.
With files from Cassie Williams, Bob Murphy and Steve Sutherland