The Media Can to do Better in Response to High-Profile Suicides

Within hours after famed designer Kate Spade took her own life on Tuesday, millions of people knew the method she used.

They knew exactly how she did it; they knew what she used to do it, complete with its colour; they knew the contents of a suicide note she left at the scene. Images of her sheet-draped body being rolled out on a gurney in front of countless onlookers were splashed across the web.

Frankly – especially as someone who lost a best friend to suicide in a similar manner – it was appalling to watch, as it quickly became a headline-dominating spectacle.

This was all, of course, thanks to the quick and insensitive reporting of countless media outlets around the world, in addition to the fact that such intimate details were leaked in the first place. The media can collectively do much better – and needs to, especially now that we have another high-profile suicide on our hands with this morning’s death of celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain.

Image: Getty Images

Let’s first think about the family, including Spade’s 13-year-old daughter. Losing a family member is tragic and numbing enough, especially when coupled with the shock of a sudden death. Knowing that the death was a suicide adds another layer to process, try to understand, and live with forever. It’s been eight years since my friend Melissa took her life and I still struggle to process it in a never-ending quest for answers and closure that may never come.

For Spade’s family, knowing that the media has turned a suicide into a soap opera and brought the world into the bedroom and the final moments of a loved one’s life only makes already fragile people even more fragile. Her husband, Andy Spade, slammed the media for releasing his wife’s suicide note, claiming he only read the contents of the alleged note in media reports. I remember how angered I was at the invasive gossip, rumours, and speculation surrounding Melissa’s death that rippled through North Toronto; I simply can’t fathom the magnitude of what Spade’s family is feeling.

The lack of privacy and sensitivity shown to Spade’s family is just one part of the problem. The other is the effect that reporting such intimate details has on already vulnerable people. According to mental health professionals, the exposure of such people to detailed, graphic reporting of suicide deaths can inspire some to take their own lives. It’s a phenomenon called suicide contagion, a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behaviour of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide.

Suicide contagion is especially risky in high profile cases, where graphic details are splashed across newsfeeds. As USA Today reports, suicides rose almost 10 per cent higher than expected in the wake of Robin Williams’ death in 2014, according to a Columbia University study in February. Furthermore, suicides using the method used by Williams – suffocation – increased over 32 per cent over that time. In her (controversial) talks with the press, Spade’s sister revealed that Kate herself was heavily affected by Williams’ death. Now, there are countless struggling people who are heavily affected by hers.

Image: Getty Images

The timing of Bourdain’s suicide is a tough pill to swallow this morning. I am in no way suggesting or speculating that there is a correlation between the two celebrity deaths, but the timing is a little unsettling, to say the least. At time of writing, media has only been told that he was “found unresponsive” this morning, and – thankfully – no further details were offered, although some have offered the method used.

Despite major moves made in both smashing the mental health stigma and turning priorities toward mental health in a way that was absent in the past, the sad reality is that suicide rates are on the rise, especially among young people. Life is a struggle enough; add the current state of the world, social media, and an increasingly disconnected culture and it’s simply too much to take for some people. We all have a role in preventing further loss of life from happening. While we’ve made major moves on the mental health front, we clearly have a long way to go.

Obviously, a high-profile death is going to make headlines, but we can be smarter and more empathetic in how we cover these things, including the intimate details offered. In response to Spade’s suicide, it’s important to acknowledge that there were positives that the media definitely got right; the widespread sharing of a crisis hotline; others coming forward with their mental health struggles; the important conversation it inspired on mental health and its lack of discrimination.

It will be interesting to see the coverage of Bourdain’s death unfold in the days to come. We can only hope that his family –including his own young daughter – doesn’t have to endure the same judgment errors that have affected Spade’s family and friends.

*****The toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.