Does bullying -- what's better described as harassment -- lead to suicide?
Two national suicide prevention advocates, responding to our coverage of the Rachel Ehmke tragedy in Kasson-Mantorville last week (and now the Jay'Corey Jones tragedy in Rochester as well), tell me it doesn't, more or less.
I don't buy it.
First, here's the email trail. On Monday, I received this:
Dear Mr. Furst,
Thank you for your recent reporting regarding the tragic death of Rachel Ehmke. Bullying and suicide are both serious public health problems, and we need to do so much more to stop them. However, the relationship between bullying and suicide is not necessarily a relationship of direct cause and effect. Suicide, and what leads one individual to it, is highly complex and almost always the result of many factors.
We are very concerned that this narrative, which is being repeated in almost every news report, that bullying leads to suicide, is inadvertently contributing to more suicides. We are in a sense telling bullied kids everywhere that suicide is a rational solution to their abuse and this can be a very dangerous message for vulnerable youth.
I would like propose that the Post Bulletin delve deeper into this complex issue of youth suicide. Every day, we lose 10-12 youths and young adults to suicide. Some may have been bullied, an equal number were the bullies, but most have never been bullied at all.
I hope that our organization can facilitate a larger conversation about suicide so that together we can work towards prevention. In the meantime, please refer to the media recommendations for safe media reporting about suicide at www.afsp.org/media.
Wylie G. Tene
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Public Relations Manager
212-363-3500 ext. 2024
Agreed, "the relationship between bullying and suicide is not necessarily a relationship of direct cause and effect." I couldn't agree more that "suicide, and what leads one individual to it, is highly complex and almost always the result of many factors."
Our reporting on Ehmke's suicide death on April 29 has included that at every turn.
Here's my response to Tene:
Thanks for the note. Typically we don't cover suicide deaths at all, as my column on Wednesday noted. In this case, where the allegation that bullying was a contributing factor was made public, we thought it was important to handle it differently. We've tried to be explicit about suicide being immensely complicated and that it's generally about more than a single cause or factor. We'll certainly be doing more on this in coming days, and I'll add your note to my blog.
Tene then sent this email after the death Sunday of Jay'Corey Jones, the 17-year-old Century High School student who took his own life; his father said that bullying, related to his son's sexual orientation, played "a big part" in his death.
Dear Mr. Furst,
We are gravely concerned that this most recent apparent suicide that was just reported in the Post Bulletin, could be directly related to the amount of media coverage given to the death of Rachel Ehmke. As you know, this phenomenon is called suicide contagion. Contagion occurs when a death receives much media coverage, and that media coverage is given high prominence and duration. I would strongly encourage the Post Bulletin and all local media outlets to again review the media recommendations for safe reporting at www.afsp.org/media. The last thing we all would want is to contribute to a third or fourth or more deaths.
It would be recommended to avoid reporting about the individual deaths all together, not even reference them. And instead (if you feel you must report about this), to report about effective prevention programs, suicide warning signs, how parents can talk to their kids, what schools can be doing and what helpful resources are available in the community. I realize that the last thing journalists want to hear is advice on how to do their jobs, but kids’ lives are in jeopardy – this is not overstated.
AFSP has a toolkit for schools on how to respond after a suicide. We also have a teen depression education program for teens and school personnel that local schools can begin to use immediately to inform their students about this issue. You can learn about both programs here - www.afsp.org/schools.
Wylie G. Tene
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Public Relations Manager
212-363-3500 ext. 2024
Aside from being offended at the immediate linkage of the two cases and the "grave concern" about our responsibility, I responded:
Hi, Wylie -- we've very aware of the guidelines at AFSP (and other suicide prevention information) and generally agree with it, generally report these incidents in briefer form. We're concerned about the copy-cat impact of coverage. That said, the death that occurred Sunday night was in a very public place and could not go unreported, and unless a family member or friend of the young man who died Sunday night says there's some connection to media coverage of what happened last week, your linking of the two is guesswork.
Because we're much closer to the reporting here than you can be, I assure you we're doing our best to be responsible and to not over-do the coverage of this news.
We'll have a story in Wednesday's edition that offers fuller backgrounder on suicide, warning signs, impact of coverage, etc.
Thanks for your concern,
On Tuesday, I heard from another suicide prevention advocate, Daniel Reidenberg, managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. Here's his note:
Good afternoon Mr. Furst,
Thank you for your efforts to try and raise awareness of the issue of suicide. There is a clear need for media to do that responsibly and accurately regardless of the circumstances, and most importantly as a prevention story rather than in response to a tragic loss of life.
I am the Executive Director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), a Minneapolis based national nonprofit working to prevent suicide. I am also the Managing Director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention and the US Representative to the International Association for Suicide Prevention and I sit on the International Association’s Media Task Force.
I have read some of what has been reported on your website and while I am appreciative of your stating the complexity of suicide, I am also deeply concerned about the reporting and the over-linking of suicide and bullying. Research has not (anywhere in the world) demonstrated a causal link between the two, yet readers will glean from the Post Bulletin stories of a connection. While I feel terrible for the family who recently lost their daughter to suicide, and they can say it was due to bullying, they can’t in fact know that and the research does not support it. Bullying very well may have been a contributing factor in her death, but bullying itself does not cause a suicide. It is common and frequent that survivors look for answers, reasons and often someone or something to blame in their grief. Unfortunately local and national media coverage of suicides and a reported connection to bullying has led to others believing that there is a direct link between them and that when a suicide of a youth has occurred, it is most likely due to bullying or related behaviors. Sadly, what research from around the world has demonstrated in more than 50 studies is that the media actually plays a real and significant role in suicide contagion. Recently in our state there has been a lot of this (specifically around suicides on highways and suicides and bullying) and we must do all that we can to stop or minimize the risk of further contagion effects by limiting the reporting on suicides, handling any reporting of them responsibly and based on research not grief or conjecture, and sending a message of hope and help to those struggling.
The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (www.reportingonsuicide.org) were developed by an international expert task force that included media experts and the Poynter Institute. I would ask that you review the Recommendations and seek input from experts like myself or Wylie Tene at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (email@example.com) in writing or publishing future stories. We would be happy to offer you assistance not to do your job or write your story, but to help minimize the risk that someone sees it and follows already previous tragic losses by suicide.
Thank you for reading this and please help us as we do what we can to reduce the risk of further tragedies.
Daniel J. Reidenberg, Psy.D., FAPA
Executive Director - Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
Managing Director - National Council for Suicide Prevention
US Representative - International Association for Suicide Prevention
8120 Penn Ave. S., Suite 470
Bloomington, MN 55431
I responded much as I responded to Tene and invited him to write a guest column on the issue. I also would ask for more information on his assertion that "research has not (anywhere in the world) demonstrated a causal link" between bullying and suicide. That may or may not be true, but it defies logic and reality to say there's no "causal link" between harassment -- "bullying" is a totally inadequate word, in my opinion, for what we're talking about -- and suicide, perhaps especially for young people.
Everyone agrees suicide is complex, but in the Rachel Ehmke case, there's no doubt that bullying and harassment were "likely factors" in her death, as the Dodge County Sheriff's Office has said. They investigated the case and that's their determination, not the parents and not the media's.
You might say that sheriff's investigators are not trained psychologists with expertise in suicide, etc., but honestly, it defies common sense and credulity to say that bullying was not a factor or a "causal link."
As I've said in my columns, we need to be as precise and sensitive as possible as we report on these devastating cases of teen suicides. I completely believe that media coverage has consequences, and the news has to be reported accurately and responsibly, with information on warning signs, ways to help, numbers to call.
But we can't hide the truth of what happened. As Dodge County investigators said, Rachel Ehmke's parents said she had been bullied and harassed for months, and they believe it contributed to her death. There's no way to avoid reporting that.
How many more lives would be damaged or destroyed if we did?
Technology -- cellphones, especially -- have profoundly changed the lives of young people as well as the rest of us. There's no question that text messaging and social media have become preferred weapons for harassment in schools, on a scale that many adults simply can't imagine.
This case has made clear to me how much the rules have changed in how we have to report deaths of this kind. With Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we've all become public figures of a kind, and the most personal news has become public, worldwide. When just about everyone in Kasson-Mantorville knows within hours of her death that a 13-year-old Mantorville girl has committed suicide, it's absurd to think the news media can ignore it, or ignore the circumstances, the comments of parents and others who have information.
The Sunday night that Rachel died, I searched "Kasson" on Twitter and found dozens of tweets from people who knew her, knew her family, knew friends of friends, and they shared the most personal details and opinions on what had happened. Most referred to the bullying she experienced.
The news was out. What we could do was check the facts, report what people with knowledge of the case were saying, and provide the type of background, context and who-to-call information that could help others.
So, today, after the Dodge County sheriff's report came out, we received this email from Tene:
Apparently, there is some new information coming out about this case that implies that Rachel may have fabricated the bullying. Are you aware of this? If you need insight on this please let us know.
I was furious at this, in part because this will probably be the lead on a lot of news stories tonight -- and it's not the conclusion of the sheriff's report.
My response to him:
Hi, Wylie -- Jeff passed along your note. Here's the link to our story and the sheriff's office document: lead on the story is, sheriff's investigation concludes that bullying and harassment were "likely factors" in the child's death.
And his to me:
As with all suicides, it turns out that this tragedy is much more complex. Our sense is that as the investigation continues, we will learn even more.
Yes, we will. What we all learn, as we go forward, will be important, and hopefully will help avoid yet another tragedy.