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Why we shouldn’t be scared to talk about suicide

It’s a difficult topic — but policymakers, educators, and journalists shouldn’t avoid it.


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series examining youth suicide in North Carolina. Scenes in this series may be disturbing to some readers. If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

As I sat down to write this week-long look at youth suicide in North Carolina, I could hear the admonitions.

“Are you prepared for the consequences?”

“Someone could read this story and not be in a healthy state of mind.”

“We have to be very careful to talk about suicide the right way.”

These were common refrains in the months I spent reporting this series — that by writing about suicide, and especially by writing about it without sensitivity, I could trigger the suicide of a teen who had been contemplating it when he or she read my story.

Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a warning on this subject. “Newspaper reports about suicide were associated with an increase in adolescent suicide clustering,” a physician wrote in the journal Pediatrics, this summer, “with greater clustering associated with front-page placement, mention of suicide or method of suicide in the article title, and detailed description in the article text about the individual or the suicide act.”

In my career as a journalist, I’ve covered plenty of difficult topics. I’ve seen horrific things, many that I’ll never forget. This week-long series on youth suicide in North Carolina has been one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported.

One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a list of principles posted on a wall in every newsroom I’ve ever worked in, is to minimize harm. At EdNC, Mebane Rash reminds the team often to do no harm.

In that sense, contemplating a story that may cause someone to harm themselves is sobering. Journalists largely do not set out to create harm, though it’s all too often a by-product of our profession. The proliferation of media without an ethical filter has made this even more difficult.

So, when I sat down to write, I struggled with the story we were planning to tell this week at EdNC.

But then I remembered another part of the SPJ code. “The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism,” it says, “is to serve the public.” That’s the foundation of what EdNC does, and why I’m proud to contribute to this organization’s coverage of issues of statewide importance. In her next breath, Rash often reminds the EdNC team to be brave.

Our policymakers need to know that some North Carolina schools have a ratio of nurses to students far outside nationally-recommended norms. They need to understand the benefits of comprehensive suicide prevention training, the kind that Wake County does in its public schools. They need to hear stories like Ash Haffner’s.

The reality is that we need to talk about suicide — sensitively but honestly — because all too many of us think it can’t happen to someone we love. I didn’t know all of the warning signs of suicide when I started working on this story. And I didn’t know what to do if I saw them in someone I care about.

As we reported on the first day of this series, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for North Carolina teenagers.

Let’s not be scared to talk about it.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.