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Mike Farrell: No matter how hard we try, suicide is beyond understanding, explanation

They were just two lines in the New York Times online:

The Marin County sheriff’s office said in a statement that it “suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.” An investigation was under way.

Robin Williams, who made us laugh for more than three decades, apparently drowned in his own depression. It is beyond understanding, and it is certainly beyond explanation.

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The truth is this: In an age when society believes everything has a cause that is correctable and journalists are expected to provide a rationale for anything that goes wrong, we are ignorant of so much that involves mental health or the lack of it.

Jim Brady, the press secretary to President Reagan, died recently, still carrying the scars from the gunshot wound John Hinckley Jr. inflicted on him in an attempt to assassinate the president for no reason that has ever made sense to me. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is still under institutional psychiatric care.

We have suffered through Columbine and Sandy Hook and numerous points in between, but we don’t have a clue why young men, sometimes teenagers, engage in horrific acts, killing others and ultimately themselves.

It would be easy to dismiss all of this as the product of a sick society, terrible parenting or any of a dozen reasons … but watch the pictures on TV news tonight from the carnage in Syria, Gaza or Iraq. Life seems comparatively easy here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but that doesn’t seem to have much impact on the mental illness and suicide statistics.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention called for more research on suicide prevention in June while reporting the rate of suicide among Americans rose in 2011, the fifth year in row. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2010, 38,364 people died of suicide in the United States.

Everyone wants an explanation – what, in this case, would prompt one of the funniest men on the planet who had fame, family and fortune to end his own life? – and the truth is, there probably isn’t one except for depression.

Depression is a terrible disease when you see it up close in someone you love. The sadness, the sorrow, the hopelessness, the lack of interest in anyone and anything become daily torture for those who must witness the soul of someone they love slowly eroding. The endless attempts to reason with someone who is beyond rational thought is mind-bogglingly frustrating to the depressed and for those who love him.

And after the suicide, the survivors’ pain is compounded by guilt.

Why didn’t I see how much he was hurting?

Why didn’t I have him in a psychiatric ward where he could be helped?

Why didn’t the doctor prescribe a different medicine?

Why did I say that to him?

Why wasn’t our love and support enough for him?

Reporting about suicide is a difficult task for journalists. Many times, the family of someone whose death was a suicide doesn’t want the public to know the cause of death. My belief as a journalist and not as a journalism educator was that suicides needed to be reported only when the suicide was committed in a public manner (leaping off a bridge, for example) or the person was a public person (a public official, a celebrity).

Suicides definitely raise ethical questions. I teach journalism ethics, and I believe the hardest of the four foundational principles in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for students to understand is the second: minimize harm.

Inevitably, journalists must balance the first ethical principle – seek the truth and report it – with the second – minimize harm. Finding the balance between the two is often more difficult than students can imagine. Many highly personal factors are involved, and journalists seldom are admitted far enough into the life of the deceased to understand what was at work in the mind of the person who felt so hopeless that he (the suicide rate for men is nearly four times the rate for women) chose to end his life.

During the spring semester, I introduced my ethics students to an expert on teen suicide, Dr. Hatim Omar, chief of UK’s Division of Adolescent Medicine. He held every student’s rapt attention when he discussed the high rate of teen suicide. Afterward, we talked about how journalists should write about suicide. To further their understanding of what it means to “minimize harm,” a young widow spoke with the students on how she felt the media treated her and her family when her husband was killed.

I remind my students of the lines from a poem by the English writer John Donne, published in 1624:

“Any Man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Compassion, understanding, personal attention and encouragement are tools in my teaching repertoire. It’s easy to think that because most of my students are 19 or 22, their lives are full of promise and excitement. This is one of the best times of their lives, something we tell them all the time. But it’s also easy to ignore that at least some of them are carrying a heart full of pain, self-doubt, stress about the future, fear of failure and problems at home.

We are all poorer for the death of one of the funniest men of his generation. After all the brilliance he gave us on television and in the movies, he left us because he could no longer stand his own pain.

It caused me to think again about something profound that my former pastor said more than once in his sermons: Be kind to the person next to you; you have no idea what burdens he or she is carrying.

A kind word, an encouraging pat on the shoulder, a listening ear, a warm smile – they all cost little but the reward may be overwhelming.


Mike Farrell is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications and director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky. He was a journalist for nearly 20 years at The Kentucky Post. His views are his own and not those of the university or KyForward.

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