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Les Leyne: Teen-suicide problem demands action

Dec 06 2012

The Vancouver Board of Education's wrong-headed move on the youth-suicide issue is a prime example of an institution missing several points.

After weeks of blanket coverage of Amanda Todd's death, it passed a motion recently calling on the mainstream media to observe certain protocols in reporting suicides.

Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus wants the board to push newspaper and broadcast watchdog groups to adhere to certain guidelines that deemphasize and minimize suicide.

The one sliver of justification for the concern is that the Todd coverage went beyond the saturation point.

But trustees' reaction to that is misguided. The main point they missed is that the mainstream media followed, rather than led the coverage. It was social media where the issue erupted, when Todd posted her forlorn farewell online.

It was social media that sustained the fallout and drove the issue to the point where it was almost impossible to ignore.

Some of the shockingly vicious commentary online makes you wonder if it's Twitter and Facebook that need to follow protocols. That's unlikely to happen. But asking mainstream media to cool it, as they frantically tried to explore and explain the phenomenon, is an irrelevant side trip.

The other thing the board missed is that media are already quite restrained when it comes to suicides.

There are many of them every year and almost none get reported.

It's a taboo topic. They are off-limits by every conventional standard of news reporting.

The only time the ban gets broken is when it is too public to ignore, or when other lives are taken as well.

The other point is that a board of education is in no position to be dictating rules of coverage. School bullying figured prominently in her mental state. Todd didn't go to Vancouver schools, but trustees are collectively responsible for the tone set on bullying. People responsible for an important element in the back story to some youth suicides shouldn't be the ones calling for media to downplay coverage of the issue.

It would be more productive to focus on preventing suicides, rather than on how they are covered.

On that topic, last year the Ministry of Children and Youth published two lengthy papers on youth suicide. They mentioned sensationalized media reports in passing, and as one of many risk factors.

One of them addressed suicide contagion, where one leads to others and a cluster of such cases develops.

To minimize that, it recommended avoiding romanticizing someone who has taken their own life. It also referred to educating reporters about responsible coverage.

On the social-media side, it noted increasing concern about networking sites leading to contagion. "Facebook sites often become emotionally charged gathering sites for young people to express their thoughts ... raising concerns about the potential for these sites to inadvertently glamorize the person who has died."

One of the studies cited the construct IS PATH WARM, developed by experts several years ago as an assessment tool.

The mnemonic stands for: Ideation, Substance abuse, Purposelessness, Anxiety, Trapped, Hopelessness, Withdrawal, Anger, Recklessness and Mood change.

Taken together, the papers show a lot of serious thinking has gone into youth suicide in the ministry most closely responsible for dealing with it.

But when it comes to action, the representative for children and youth is preparing a report on child and youth mental-health services that will likely accuse the ministry of coming up short.

Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond referred to it in a report last month on youth suicides.

Her office reviewed 17 suicides and 74 cases of self-injury by youth known to the ministry over a three-year period. Her list of indicators is different from the one cited above.

The common threads through many of the cases were lack of stability in living arrangements, domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse, lack of attachment to school and recent romantic conflicts.

The predominance of aboriginal youth - 58 per cent of the cases - was disturbing, she said, as were the varying degrees of compliance with ministry standards in each case.

Turpel-Lafond said there was a lack of clarity about mental-health services for youth, given the number of cases where mental health was an issue.

Although the big report is still in the works, she said there is a clear and urgent need for immediate action.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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