The silent killer we can’t even talk about...

No matter how well-intentioned... a printed report on suicide harden the resolve of others who might also be contemplating ending their own lives, at the point of reading it

Of all the conventions and ‘unwritten rules’ that guide media ethics, the one about ‘not reporting suicide cases’ may be the most problematic.

It was a question I was asked directly myself, just a couple of days ago. Not so much: “Why don’t newspapers report suicide cases?” – because the answer to that, I would imagine, is already widely known and accepted.

In case it isn’t, however: there is an abundance of research to prove that suicidal behaviour may be, up to a point, ‘contagious’. No matter how well-intentioned, a printed report can (even just by virtue of ‘officialising’ the event itself) harden the resolve of others who might also be contemplating ending their own lives, at the point of reading it.

And given the profound, earth-shattering impact of any suicide case – to the victim, of course, but also to family, friends, relatives, etc. - that is, quite frankly, not something any newspaper would really want on its conscience.

No, the question I was asked was more like: ‘Never mind individual cases: why do the Maltese media always seem to avoid ever discussing suicide, as an issue, at all?’

And it was followed by a long argument along the lines that… well, maybe the media should do a little more to raise awareness about the particular issue, given that:

a) there is already evidence that depression (invariably a major cause of suicidal tendencies) is on the increase anyway;

b) In November 2019, it was reported that Mater Dei’s Casualty Department received ‘between one and three of self-harm/attempted suicide A DAY’ [my emphasis];

c) Existing mental health issues are likely to be exacerbated by all the added stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19;

d) like everywhere else, Malta is (or should be) bracing itself for an impending financial crisis, involving job-losses on a possibly unprecedented scale, and;

e) it is debatable whether our mental health services – which, like all other departments, are dependent on government’s (rapidly shrinking) revenue – are resourced and equipped enough to deal with a potential mental health emergency on a national scale.

Now: as you may have already guessed, there was another reason why these questions were put to me this particular week… even if the same convention (quite rightly) prevents me from going into any further detail.

Let’s just say that this issue that we in the media find so difficult to talk about… this silent, cruel killer in our midst…. decided to reach out a long, bony finger, and tap some of us on the shoulder when we least expected it.

And a cold, ghastly touch it was, too: reminding us that all those ‘suicide statistics’ we hear about from time to time, could all just as easily have been people we knew, however fleetingly or remotely. In a parallel universe, they might have been our close friends, our distant acquaintances, our family members, our colleagues, past or present… who knows? Even ourselves, if our own individual circumstances happened to be different.

This, in turn, may even have something to do with the seemingly ‘contagious’ nature of suicide to begin with. There is another effect such stories may have on readers; while few among us can claim to have stared anywhere near as deeply into the bottomless abyss… we have all – even if just in our nightmares – taken, at minimum, the smallest of peeks.

Some us have may have looked deep enough, perhaps, to at least able to intimate the utmost dark of a tunnel with no light whatsoever at the other end.

All the same, we are not in that predicament ourselves; and this, I suppose, is what makes the entire issue so profoundly tragic to begin with.  It horrifies us, because – unlike the people caught up in the crisis itself – we can see the light at the end of that tunnel perfectly clearly: just as plainly as we can see the back of our own hand.

And though the realization invariably comes too late… it immediately raises other questions of its own. Could such a thing have been avoided? Can such things ever be avoided? And - in a country where suicide rates (albeit still low, by European standards) have increased dramatically over the past 20 years - what can possibly be done to prevent (or at least minimize) such things from happening again in future…?

But by the same token: it also forced me to take another, closer look at that same media convention of ours. How can such questions possibly be answered, when the rules of media engagement seem to place the entire issue beyond the reach of discussion to begin with? (Albeit with a few exceptions: such as suicide in prison, for instance… in which case we’ve had a deeply disturbing 10 cases over the last two years alone…)

Taking those arguments I listed out earlier to their natural conclusion… a compelling case could be made that the media are actually reneging on their responsibilities by over-emphasizing the suicide ‘taboo’: not, perhaps, because they ‘don’t report suicide cases’ - for all those concerns with ‘contagion’ still remain firmly in place - but because we just don’t pay enough attention to all the possible underlying causes, either.

To put it another way: if, instead of ‘suicide’, we were talking about virtually any other life-threatening phenomenon you care to name: a homicidal maniac on the loose, for instance; or (dare I say it) a pandemic involving a potentially fatal virus, circulating among the population at large… the media would not only be entitled, but compelled to report the fact. Anything less would be considered a dereliction of duty.

Meanwhile, there was another deeply distressing cause of death this week: only this time, without any convention to prevent us from actually talking about it.

I’m referring to that truly blood-curdling story about a 95-year-old woman who was mauled to death by dogs in her own home. Without entering into the specific details: let’s just say that this cannot be considered an isolated case – though it is, undeniably, the most shocking local example of its kind by far.

But ‘dangerous dogs’ have been occasionally known to attack and maim people before (or to kill other dogs… or even, for that matter, horses and ponies). So much so, that the most recent amendments to Maltese legislation concerning dangerous dogs – Chapter 312, Article 14 of the Criminal Code – came about in 2007… two years after a much-publicised case were a chihuahua was similarly torn apart, in front of horrified onlookers, by a pair of unmuzzled pit-bull terriers.

Then as now, I imagine this week’s tragedy will once again ignite some of form of debate regarding dangerous (in this case) dogs… but let’s not sidetrack too much.

The point is, when something as utterly shocking as that happens – a woman killed by dogs in her own home, no less… or, to stretch the analogy further still, a women buried under the rubble of her own home (as happened in Hamrun last March)  – you can rest assured that there will be some kind of media reaction.

There would have to be: just as there has to be, at minimum, a magisterial inquiry in any cases of violent and/or unexplained death.

And yet, when dealing with another potential killer in our midst – one which (much as I hate to say it) has a statistically far higher chance of actually striking than any number of ‘dangerous animals’ – it’s as though we can’t seem to bring ourselves to talk about it at all.

I could, mind you, be very wrong about all this. For one thing, it’s probably not 100% accurate to say that no discussion is currently taking place at all. ‘Suicide Prevention’ is, after all, one of the stated aims of the ongoing mental health reform – even if, come to think of it, we haven’t actually heard very much about it in the media of late.

But I could be wrong for a different reason. I am painfully aware that, when the chips are down, it might not have been my place to even bring of any of this up at all  – indeed I probably wouldn’t have, had those questions not been asked of me in the first place – so I’d like to pre-emptively apologise to anyone who feels hurt or offended by what I have written today.

But the fact remains that I was asked the question – by someone far, far closer to the epicentre of this tragedy than I ever was, myself – and I instinctively felt it would be wrong to leave her without an answer.