Lately highly publicised suicides have made their way into news and knowledge of the general public. Avicii, fashion designer Kate Spade and now Anthony Bourdain.
This awakens thoughts both as a journalist and as a formerly suicidal person.
While training I was taught that suicide is the hardest verdict an inquest can record and you can report as it’s so devastating to those left behind. You are way more likely to get a complain for simply attending an inquest if the verdict is suicide, let alone report on it.
Before you judge a journalist for attending an inquest, let me explain this first: An inquest is ordered for a variety of reasons, if the person dies in police custody for example. In the UK both the public and the press are allowed to attend an inquest by law. This enables public scrutiny towards a public body or a company, for example a nursing home. Allowing the press to attend can potentially uncover wrongdoing.
I know it feels personal if the inquest is for your loved one but I can assure you it isn’t.
Oftentimes we don’t know the case when attending the inquest. The person’s name, age and place of residence are listed on the coroner’s list. That’s it. Unless you’ve written about the person in the past, or you’re aware of the events preceding their death, we have no clue what’s happened when entering the room.
My job is to report the coroner’s verdict accurately and promptly. I have been yelled at by family members for turning up but there hasn’t been a mistake in the actual report.
I always try to be polite and respectful. I keep my distance to the family, sit on the other end of the room and try to be invisible as possible. I can’t even imagine what an inquest must be like to endure for the family and friends of the deceased, and I don’t seek to add to their pain by any means. Still, I need to be there. I’ve been told to come by a senior member of staff. This is my job.
When reporting suicide you touch the core of stigma surrounding mental illness. The reactions by families vary greatly. Some publicise what happened well before an inquest has been made. They say the word and want to spread it to help others. I’ve seen families announce long and detailed public statements, while others won’t say a word.
I hope in the case of the latter it has been because of the rawness of the pain, not due to shame often associated with suicide. On one occasion the family insisted of putting in a death notice in the same issue where the inquest verdict of suicide was reported. Nobody puts a cause of death in the notice, but the family wanted it to say cancer.
This saddens me because there is nothing to be ashamed of in suicide. In my mind it’s nothing different to losing your fight with cancer. The illness was just too much.
I think the concept of suicide dips into the pool where all the abortion and euthanasia debate stems from. It’s this mystified, often religious idea about the sacredness of life, where you’re not supposed to meddle with it because our life is given to us by some higher power. Choosing to end that life in one form or another seems to cause some primeval aggression within some people, like I noticed in “You’re so selfish”
I admit I haven’t lost a loved one to suicide. Maybe I’d feel different if I had. Still, I’ve tried to end my own life. Without knowing the circumstances I can empathise and imagine what might have been going on with that person, why did they make that choice. When a fellow human being sees no other way to be freed of their pain, it’s devastating. But not shameful.
When the loved ones of famous people who have made this choice get public with it, they give out an important message into the public consciousness: It can happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, adored and respected. An illness doesn’t discriminate, and it will make you feel alone when you’re surrounded by loved ones. It’s incredibly brave for those left behind to admit that.
To many who’ve never experienced poor mental health, suicide makes about the same amount of sense as self-harm. It doesn’t make any logical sense, it’s frightening and mysterious because the person isn’t there anymore to tell their side of the story. All that’s left is speculation.
The ignorant will call it a selfish choice. It isn’t. When I was really unwell, so unwell that I wanted to die, I thought that others were selfish because they were expecting me to live with the way I was feeling. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid to keep on living, because I was so unwell. When every minute felt like an hour, every breath was painful and I couldn’t imagine the following day.
While sympathising with the pain and suffering of the loved ones left behind, I can’t call a person who couldn’t take it anymore selfish. We don’t have a go at cancer patients for dying, why should we when someone loses their fight with a mental illness?
The increased openness that comes from reporting deaths like this hopefully helps to bring this simple message to home.
It could happen to you.