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Apparent Link Between Media Coverage, Suicides Worries Experts

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WASHINGTON--Meeting here in the aftermath of last month's group suicide by four Bergenfield, N.J., teen-agers, two expert panels confronted a disturbing dilemma underscored by that widely reported tragedy: How do you talk about suicide without inspiring it?

The panelists' answer, in a word: "Carefully.''

"Frankly, we have a limited understanding as to precisely what kind of information causes what to happen among teen-agers or anybody,'' said Dr. Herbert Pardes, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University. He was among the experts assembled by the Youth Suicide National Center for a press conference on March 26.

"We just don't know what works yet,'' said another psychiatrist the following day, at a separate panel discussion organized by the Scientist's Institute for Public Information and the American Orthopsychiatric Association.

Planned well in advance of the Bergenfield suicides, the second meeting was to have focused on the way news media portray adolescents. But the topic of youth suicide dominated the discussions.

The unprecedented media examination of the Bergenfield tragedy and subsequent "copycat'' suicides in several states, the experts said, reflects a heightening of public concern over how to discuss youth suicides in the classroom, in the home, and, primarily, in the news. "I think a threshold or sound barrier, so to speak, has been broken with this last slew of tragedies,'' said Dr. Samuel C. Klagsbrun, medical director of Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, N.Y., and an expert on the youth-suicide center's panel.

"Even people who wanted to stay away from the subject are being forced to accept it now.''

Charlotte Ross, executive director of the center, said that the Bergenfield suicides attracted national attention because "it was the first time any of us in the field were aware of four teens committing suicide together.''

The four teen-agers--two sisters and two young men--were found on March 11, seated in a car with the engine running inside a locked garage.

They had apparently died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, according to police, who said a suicide note written on a brown paper bag was found beside them. (See Education Week, March 18, 1987.)

Two days later, two young women in Alsip, Ill., also poisoned themselves with automobile exhaust fumes.

Found with them in the car were a stuffed animal, a photo album, and a rose, according to police accounts.

And, on March 17, a Bergenfield police officer rescued two other teen-agers who were attempting to commit suicide in the same garage where the four teen-agers had died a week earlier.

Scattered accounts of other young people's suicides and attempted suicides in the weeks that followed were highly suggestive, experts said, of what has come to be called the "copycat'' or "cluster'' effect in youth suicide.

The phenomenon was examined in a pair of studies published last September in the New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that television dramas and news reports about suicide appear to trigger a brief increase in the number of teen-age suicides. (See Education Week, Sept. 24, 1986.)

Media Links

At the panel discussions here, the widespread disagreement in the field over the significance of such studies was evident.

Several panelists, for example, made a point of noting that no studies so far have measured the positive effect of media coverage of suicides. How many people, they asked, may have sought help following a news broadcast or a newspaper story?

Ms. Ross of the Y.S.N.C. said that most accounts of last year's New England Journal studies failed to note that, in the two weeks following one televised drama about a 17-year-old who killed himself, there were no successful suicides in the greater New York City area, the region that served as the focus for one of the studies.

That movie, "Silence of the Heart,'' was accompanied by scripts, teacher's guides, and television spots informing viewers of where to get help if they were contemplating suicide.

Two Hypotheses

As one audience member at the second seminar put it: "There seems to be two competing hypothetheses.

"One is the 'innoculation model,' which says that a few are killed but more are helped; and the other is the 'loss of stigma' that results from extensive coverage of suicide.''

Even so, the experts said, the "cluster effect'' may account for a "small amount'' of the 5,000 suicides committed each year by people between the ages 15 and 24.

On average, Ms. Ross said, 13 young people take their own lives each day. Suicide, she noted, has become the second leading cause of death, after accidents, for the 15-to-19-year-old age group.

Yet, although the rate of suicides among young people has tripled since 1950 and doubled since 1960, the numbers appear to have stabilized since 1980. And recognition of the problem has grown.

Despite such awareness, however, research on causes and preventive measures has fallen short of answers, the experts assembled here last month said.

"There is a great deal to be learned and a great deal we don't know,'' said Dr. Pardes of Columbia University. Studies in progress now, he said, are examining the "risk factors'' of suicide, and the possibility that some people are biologically predisposed to killing themselves.

Other projects are re-examining the apparent link between media coverage of suicide and any increase in the number of attempts.

Contexts for Discussion

While there are as yet no definitive answers to the question of which preventive methods work, Ms. Ross said, experts are getting "some hints'' about the best ways to handle discussions of the subject.

The advice they offered in the successive panel discussions here was, for the most part, aimed at the media. But in interviews following both events, experts said that the same recommendations could apply to classroom discussions:

  • "The detailing of methods is something that we should be cautious about,'' according to Dr. Seymour Perlin, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University Medical Center.
  • "Show more of the successes, the people who make a choice to live,'' said Ms. Ross of the Y.S.N.C.
  • Dr. Klagsbrun warned that teachers who initiate discussions should be prepared--through training, inservice workshops, or staff orientations--to deal with the possible consequences of such encounters.

He and others said that teachers should be trained to watch for the warning signs of suicide in their students: creative writing assignments that reveal a death wish, extended periods of depression, the giving away of possessions, the recent suicide of a friend or relative, running away, major personality changes, and other symptoms.

  • Avoid "deifying'' suicide victims, Dr. Pardes said, or "giving them a fame in death that they never had in life.''
  • Include information on where teen-agers can go for professional help in dealing with their problems, panelists agreed.

More information on the subject is available from the Youth Suicide National Center, 1825 I Street, N.W., Suite 945, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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