At National Press Club panel, experts ask for more nuance from media on suicide coverage

The widow of a veteran who took his life says the media need to report about suicide in ways that don’t perpetuate feelings of hopelessness and contribute to a “suicide contagion.”

“Suicide — because it’s multifactorial, because it’s misunderstood — is often stigmatized,” said Kim Ruocco, vice president of suicide prevention and postvention for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). “But we also want to understand the multiple factors that contribute to someone dying by suicide. They’re not selfish. They’re not getting back at anyone. They’re often very sick and convince themselves that they’re a burden to people around them and that people would be better off without them.”

In a panel discussion Wednesday at the National Press Club, Ms. Ruocco said the media can help prevent suicide, raise awareness about it and change the conversations around the topic. Journalists have to balance the horrific side of suicide with stories of hope and healing, she said.

Several panel experts said about 20 veterans take their own lives each day. Of the 47,000 people who die by suicide each year, more than 6,000 are veterans, said Keita Franklin, executive director of suicide prevention at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. Franklin said the VA saves about 70 lives each day via its crisis hotline and about 240 lives at its facilities. She also noted what the media could do to help prevent suicides — by avoiding sensational headlines and coverage, gory details and the “criminalization” of the act with the phrase “to commit suicide.”

“I recognize the role of the media in changing American perception and messages of hope and recovery,” Ms. Franklin said. “I think we definitely need to talk about it [suicide] more, in safe ways of course.”

Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane III said the photos news outlets choose to publish can contribute to the problem, adding that including a crisis hotline phone number in news stories could be a boon.

Conversely, Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, said the media sometimes don’t report on suicides enough or habitually normalize and sensationalize their stories.

“Historically, the media has chosen not to report on suicide. The belief has been you only report on it if it’s a public official or it happens in a public place or it’s a well-known celebrity,” Mr. Reidenberg said. “And that has created a lot of myths and misperceptions for the public and lack of understanding about the topic.”

Ms. Ruocco shared the story of her husband’s suicide. Marine Maj. John Ruocco took his life Feb. 7, 2005, three months after his combat tour in Iraq. She said a number of factors contributed to his death, including post-traumatic stress and unresolved grief.

She added that sometimes the media report too much on the problem of suicide while failing to offer resources to prevent it.

The panel highlighted several resources, including the TAPS 24-hour crisis line (1-800-959-8277), Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255), #BeThere campaign and ChooseVA.

Ms. Ruocco said it took her two years after John’s death to seek support from others with similar experiences. In 2008, she began working at TAPS to help those who also lost loved ones to suicide.

With a renewed sense of purpose, Ms. Ruocco said she feels as if she is partnering with John to help prevent suicide, turning his death into something positive and honoring his memory.

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