Media Talk: Secrets, stigma & powerful journalism

Media Talk: Secrets, stigma & powerful journalism

Kate Legge's piece on suicide, 'It's Time To Talk', in The Weekend Australian Magazine is one of those pieces of journalism that makes the profession look like a respectable calling in the era of Today Tonight sensationalism and TMZ-led reportage. The delicacy and professionalism with which she handled the subject matter is to be commended; I hope it gets Walkley recognition.

The motivation behind the feature is to break down the stigma around suicide, which claims more Australian lives than motor accidents each year, with Legge having witnessed a suicide in London herself when she was 18. Legge explores the issue from all angles; the arc being the tension between the benefits of a national prevention campaign "stressing the links between mental illness and suicidal thoughts" and "fear of a contagion effect" whereby publicity might heighten "anxiety, stress and thoughts of suicide" amongst those most vulnerable to its pull. Legge writes:

"Both camps come armed with evidence, but accuracy is hampered by the inability to control conditions for proper scientific testing, the lack of public campaigns available for study, and shifts in media habits with the proliferation of unregulated internet sites such as YouTube and Facebook that fall outside the guidelines for reporting on suicide. Some experts argue that copycat events will occur among friendship groups regardless of media reporting. In Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, three families have attended their children’s funerals in the past three years. None of these deaths was discussed in the media, but the young adults knew each other... the Mindframe National Media Initiative, which oversees the guidelines for media, found a strong association between presentations of suicide and increases in suicide behaviour – particularly when stories were prominent or sensationalised, or described the method of death in detail."

Some further comments canvassed on the matter:
- "I’m happy for there to be a conversation about the mental health problems such as depression that lead to suicide, but the more we focus on the outcome of suicide the greater the likelihood it will occur."  Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
- "not to talk about it at all, pretty much, only reinforces the belief that it’s wrong to talk about suicide. It makes people feel like they are alone…" Jenny Allen from Youth Focus
- "With suicide we need to stress the importance of creating relationships and networks between people... to enable conversations where feelings and concerns can be talked about and listened to without being judged. Creating a public face, having someone talk openly about being depressed and at the point of committing suicide, gives people permission to talk about their own feelings." Marie Jepson, mother of law student Tristan Jepson who took his own life in 2004 after years of battling depression.

I'm of the firm belief that there should be scientifically based, heavily considered media guidelines around a number of issues, particularly where mental health is concerned. When you have suffered yourself, you become acutely aware of how media messages are misconstrued; about what is helpful to you and what is not. Without wanting to project one's life experience onto a complicated issue of such significance, these matters cannot be taken lightly; there are lives at risk.

I often find myself questioning the benefit of reportage of issues around mental health, such as self-harm, in teen, young women's and even fashion magazines. The role of features writers and editors as gatekeepers of information and its presentation cannot be treated lightly – and I know it's not, but the creep of sensationalism together with the requisite need to find images to support any story, and a trend towards first-person accounts of mental health issues, is problematic, as is the idea of context: issues such as these being presented in glamorous women's magazines in which beauty and fashion (which can be triggers themselves) are heavily weighted.

It's an issue I also face with this blog. What is the shared benefit of disclosing my personal experience (in the context of a blog which can often deal in superficial content and in an aesthetically "pretty" environment) versus giving more content space to those things which I know – from research as well as personal experience – help build mental resilience? I am extremely mindful of "triggering" and "normalising" and "glamourising", like other content producers – and even more so without the benefit of a team of editors and sub-editors to vet my work.

I have had numerous discussions with mental health professionals, and also strive for editorial diligence, which makes me more comfortable with what I present. To be a "safe" place online is what I strive for; and I can fall short. There are content negotiations to be made. For example, do I discuss the suicide death of journalist Charmaine Dragun, as CLEO did last year in a story about anti-depressants, or negate it altogether? At the time, I wrote of the CLEO piece: "It's a socially responsible piece which will hopefully have young women thinking before they ask for Prozac." There is also a copy of Emma Forrest's entertaining memoir of her mental health and eating disorder on my desk: do I review it? You may have noticed I completely skipped over Portia de Rossi's book – I thought it to be of no benefit to my life (far too detailed) and thus none to the blog, but thought Mia Freedman's review more than adequate. And do I venture to post an image of a disheveled looking Kate Bosworth on the cover of Nylon, a magazine in which she talks about her anxiety?

There's nothing quite so debilitating as social isolation; when you have inner turmoil and anguish, the tipping point is fine, indeed. To that end, I have appreciated in the past journalist (and now medical student) Lisa Pryor's 2008 column on her depression, she being someone I admired. Personal narratives, told in the right way, can break down stigma; transparency is a good, healthy thing. But the end game has to be helpful in some way, and responsible – I have read far too many 'misery memoirs' (as Cosmo's former book reviewer) to know that there is no gain to be made in dishing out your issues for all and sundry to read when you have little to offer in the way of the road to recovery (i.e. too much time spent in the desert; not enough in greener pastures). While 'happy endings' don't always happen, there must surely be light and hope.

Last week, I had a terrible down day after a few hard weeks of unfortunate personal events. I am aware of the triggers: not enough sleep, inadequate carbohydrate intake, too much online time, mental anguish over some issue I need to discuss with a person (with skin on)... One must be vigilant in keeping on top of such things in order to function properly – common sense to most, but this can easily ensnare those 'in recovery'. So I went for a walk. And then I spotted a lily in the middle of a grassy field where there was no other flower in bloom. (Of course I took a picture!). I knelt down and sat with that lily and thanked God for it, as I'd asked him for a sign of hope. He delivered. The following day I woke up and all was rosy again. The down days are much less frequent now – and I'm less likely to think that I am the only one who experiences them.

I have been blessed to find a strong, hilarious, warm, welcoming, unjudgemental, Godly group of female friends in my new home who will listen to my concerns and burdens. We meet together every Thursday night for a chinwag and Bible study. I also have a husband who, thankfully, is happy to share the burden (the best thing he ever said to me was, "We're in this together; you have no choice to go it alone").

But 'healing' oneself, and banishing any thoughts of wanting to banish oneself, is a process. My greatest fear is for those who fall through the cracks, unable to get the support they need or who might seek advice and support in the wrong places as a last resort (hello, Google). While some mental health issues can remain a secret, mine was quite obvious to see as it manifested physically. Try as you might, you can't get through it alone. You need professional help and a team of supporters who will love you unconditionally as you get back on your feet.

Having known three people in my life to take their own lives, one my brilliant and beautiful but deeply mentally anguished aunt, I count myself blessed.

Perhaps helpful: Catholics, cupcakes and community

"The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23: 1-4

Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

loved this story too erica... stories like this almost counteract the whole babies for birkins clip and make me (almost!) miss working as a journalist. did you ever read the pulitzer prize winning article from 2010 by Gene Weingarten? Made me cry
Also brilliant.