That-which-must-not-be-named

Since the Toronto Blue Jays finished up their 2011 season with a perfect 500 record (81 – 81), Your Working Girl is now turning to a serious matter that reared its painful head as the sun shone, the lakes glistened and the wind rustled through the trees. 
And fair warning to you, Gentle Reader, the matter is like Lord Voldemort.  It is deathly and we’ve tried to keep it at bay by not speaking its name. 
The Globe and Mail reported the passing of Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien on August 15, 2011 using the common code words “it was a sudden but not suspicious death.”
The omerta loosened up 15 days later when former Toronto Maple Leaf Wade Belak died of an ‘apparent suicide.’
Then 11-year-old Toronto boy Mitchell Wilson took his own life just hours after he learned he would have to testify against the 12-year-old boy who bullied him.  When his grief-stricken father spoke to the media about his loss, it became impossible not to talk about suicide. 
Aside from the cultural and religious taboos associated with suicide (let’s leave cultural and religious hero worship associated with suicide for another day), there is the widespread idea that suicide is contagious and that if it is talked about or reported on, it will turn viral and result in many more suicides among people who are already vulnerable.  
The idea of copycat suicide is referred to as the ‘Werther principle’.  Taking his inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, American sociologist David Philips coined the romanticized term in 1974.  Goethe’s wildly popular novel published 200 years earlier in 1774 features the letters of the tormented, lovelorn protagonist who ultimately takes his own life because he’ll never have the woman he loves.  One impact of Goethe’s novel was that young men across Europe adopted the blue pants, yellow jacket and white shirt favoured by the young Werther. And, as an important book in the angst filled Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period of German literature, it also reportedly led to the first recorded example of what authorities thought were copycat suicides. 
Research conducted by Philips and others linked the commission of suicide and reporting of suicide.  When newspapers when on strike, suicide rates seemed to decrease or when celebrity suicides were covered prominently, suicide rates increased.  There is even research that suggests that single vehicle motor accidents increase when a suicide story is a lead news item.  Not all researchers agree on the Werther effect.  Some say the data has been selective.  They point to the fears of copycat suicides not materializing after Kurt Cobain took his own life.  Nonetheless, organizations like the Canadian Psychiatric Association issue comprehensive guidelines on reporting suicide which, to Your Working Girl’s eye, look so cumbersome they would make any responsible editor recoil from covering the issue at all. 
Your Working Girl believes the questions must be asked:    
1.      In an effort to protect potentially vulnerable people, have we have promoted a code of silence that is doing more harm than good?
2.      By focusing on the power of copycat suicides and the way news agencies report suicide are we completely missing the reasons why so many Canadians feel such despair they choose to die?
That the reportage of suicide is blamed for increasing the incidents of suicide feels a bit off to  Your Working Girl.  After all, the silence around wife assault kept it hidden – and deadly – for so long.  Responsible journalists will pretty consistently report responsibly.  News agencies that choose to sensationalize events like rape and murder will continue to do so.  Does that mean we should just not talk about it? 
If there’s anything good that can come out of the personal tragedies Canadians have become aware of in the last few months, let it be that we can break the silence on suicide.  The stats are truly alarming:
·         Today 10 Canadians will take their own lives, a per capita rate three times that of the United States’
·         Suicide is the leading cause of death in men ages 25 to 29 and 40 to 44
·         Suicide is the leading cause of death in women ages 30 to 34
·         Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents
People living in Toronto might be particularly interested to know that between 1999 and 2009, 150 killed themselves by throwing themselves in front of TTC subway trains, more than one a month. 
Bob Rae said it beautifully in an article he wrote for the Globe and Mail on October 4, 2011, in which he thoughtfully advocates a national suicide strategy:
            “Lives lost, kids struggling with identity and bullying, young people suddenly feeling adrift       and abandoned, veterans returning home from duty, older people struggling with health and uncertain of the way ahead. What we now realize is a simple truth: Suicide is not just a personal tragedy, a life cut short, an existential decision that leaves disbelief and devastation behind.”
                “It is no surprise, then, that all of us have been touched by suicide, have lost friends and loved ones, and have tried to figure out why lives that seemed together and well-focused are suddenly ended. But the bewilderment of silence and pain that surrounds mental  health has to end. It is no longer just a personal question; it is now a political question.”
It’s time to break the silence on suicide.
Your Working Girl has concluded that there is virtually nothing that cannot be explicitly discussed in the media these days.  (Think Rick Santorum.) Yet suicide is still described in code.  It seems . . .  well . . .  madness, that a soul-destroying tragedy affecting thousands of families across the country,  including the family of some of Your Working Girl’s dearest friends, continues to be talked about in hushed tones. In an effort to shed some light on how we communicate issues around suicide, fundraise for suicide prevention and reduce suicide, Your Working Girl’s next few columns will focus on this topic and the people who are working on it.     

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