According to reporter Liz Goodwin of the Look Out blog, recent news coverage of tragic gay teen suicides focused the public attention on the problem of anti-gay bullying.
Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is concerned that this type of coverage could actually encourage vulnerable young people to copycat such tragic behavior. By putting forth bullying as a “cause” of suicide and ignoring underlying mental-health issues that are present in 90 percent of people who die by suicide, the national media may be “normalizing” suicide as a rational response to bullying. For youth already at risk, this could be a dangerous message.
According to Haas, suicides are complex. Portraying a suicide as a rational response to a single incident or problem can lead already vulnerable people to identify with and copy the behavior. This makes for an unusually fine line between raising awareness about an issue and sensationalizing it.
Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director of the anti-bullying Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), says that there hasn’t been enough mention of mental illness in media coverage, though it can be difficult for reporters to discuss mental illness in cases when it’s gone undiagnosed. She prefers stories that focus not on the young people who die but on the solutions to some of the problems they faced.