CW: suicide discussed and some vague mentions of methods
Earlier in the week North Melbourne Footballer (AFL) Majak Daw attempted suicide. I was deeply saddened by this. Daw is the first Sudanese-born Australian footballer to play in the AFL and as such is an inspiration to many young African-Australians. Being in such a high profile means the news of Daw’s attempt has been all over the media. And I’ve noticed some trends over the years about how suicide is reported on in the media and Daw’s attempt was no different.
Before discussing the ways the media reports on suicide I feel it is important to acknowledge factors that influence this in Daw’s case. Being from a Sudanese background, there is a chance the media have reported on it the way they have to protect the interests of Daw’s family and community. Mental illness and suicide are extremely stigmatised in African communities, to an even more extreme extent than the rest of the population. Potentially, the media were/are attempting to help Daw to remain face in the way they chose to report. However, I do think this unlikely as A) When have we have ever known mainstream Australian media to be culturally sensitive? (Especially in regards to Sudanese-Australians) And B) I’ve noticed these same problematic ways of reporting in other cases beyond Daw’s so it seems more like a reporting on suicide issue than a cultural issue.
My first problem with the way Daw’s attempt and other suicides are reported on is the choice to include methods. In every report I saw (and I tried to read all of them) the method Daw used was mentioned. I even read a few articles that listed the specific medications he took before driving to the location where he made his more serious attempt. Not just medication categories but actual brand names of the medication. I don’t care what kind of story you are trying to write that is just straight up irresponsible. Suicide contagion is a very real thing, especially when it is a celebrity and it is heavily saturated in the media. To include specific methods increases the risk of copy cats.
Reporting on methods is an obvious no-no that most journalists should be aware of. It is well-documented. But some of reporting styles were problematic for more subtle reasons. Every article about Daw mentioned that he was injured following an ‘incident’ and a bridge. Most people can put together what that means, sure. But I think the deliberate choice to not use the words ‘suicide attempt’ is exceptionally stigmatising. It portrays suicide as a dirty little secret. And for myself, someone who has attempted suicide in the past, it evokes memories of the shame I felt following my attempt. It reminds me of how myself and family members would use the phrase ‘you know when that happened’ or ‘when I was in hospital’ to describe my suicide attempt.
By not using the words ‘suicide attempt’ reporters are not only making the act of suicide/attempts more shameful and stigmatised, they are also downplaying the seriousness of the act. As I mentioned earlier, some of this may have been influenced by cultural background in Daw’s case, but this is an ugly trend in general. There is a common misconception that talking about suicide makes people more likely to attempt themselves but this is simply not true. It is all in how we have the conversations. Yes, listing methods is an issue but acknowledging that an attempt took place is not. Avoiding talking about suicide and the reality of it altogether does not help those who are feeling suicidal. In fact, realistic conversations about the consequences of attempts such as injuries/disability and impact on loved ones and personal recovery can act as deterrents. It makes it more real as opposed to a fantasy escape.
I think one of the most troubling things I have seen in the media concerning Daw’s attempt is the obsession over whether or not he will play again. I’ve seen countless reports detailing his injuries and surgeries and predictions concerning his physical recovery to footy fitness. Very few journalists seem to care about his emotional recovery and the turmoil and trauma a suicide attempt actually causes for the person and their family.
This is an indictment on our society as a whole. As the media reports what they think we want to see. So obviously it is believed that we care about physical health more than mental health. I wonder where the journos could have gotten that idea? *sarcasm font*
Like it or not, journalists have a lot of power over how we interpret world events. And it is a shame that Daw’s attempt and the attempted/completed suicides of others are not reported in a more compassionate and responsible way. Journalism that is honest and informed by the research surrounding the right ways to talk about suicide could go a long way to de-stigmatising mental illness and potentially save lives. But unfortunately, I think we are a long way away from this.
If any of the content in this post or the media surrounding Daw has been upsetting for you please do not hesitate to reach out to someone or call a helpline. I’ve listed Australian numbers below.
Lifeline: 1300 224 636
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 80
Mensline: 1300 78 99 78