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What Publications Missed When Covering Soap Star's 'Suicide Threats'

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

After rumors and news reports spread Sunday night that “Young and The Restless” star Kristoff St. John threatened suicide with a gun, his ex-wife, Mia St. John, set the record straight in an exclusive interview with Entertainment Tonight.

Mia said the reports were based on “fabricated information” and that although the actor was struggling after his son’s suicide almost three years ago, what happened wasn’t what headlines led people to believe.

She said:

Last week, an incident occurred, that pushed him to the breaking point, but was not accurately reported. I hope that at this moment we can all wrap our arms around Kristoff and help him in this time of need. Help him heal and move forward. This is not a ‘gossip’ story, or an interesting headline, this is a man trying to deal with a tragedy, that has torn apart his soul. Right now what he needs is your thoughts and prayers.

Unfortunately, when a celebrity dies by, attempts suicide or has a mental health challenge, it’s often presented as frivolously and sensationalized as any other celebrity story. And when suicide stories are treated as gossip, publications see it as their job to collect the “juicy deets.” This ironically includes the type of details you’re not supposed to include in a suicide story, like what methods were used and where it happened. In an extreme example of this, TMZ actually shared the 911 call that was made after it was found that Chester Bennington had died of suicide.

The audio, which is still up, is called, “Chester Bennington 911 Call, Housekeeper Wailed in Agony After Finding Him…”

Forget that Bennington has kids. Forget that there’s nothing productive about posting a call like this. It was another detail of an unfolding story, and TMZ had to stay “on top of” the news.

Similarly, this time, the main focus wasn’t just that St. John was hospitalized, but that he threatened to kill himself with a gun — a (false) detail that makes the headline “spicier,” and adds no value to the news itself. His ex-wife said it best: “This is not a ‘gossip’ story, or an interesting headline.”

So to publications writing up celebrity suicides and suicide attempts, here are some things I wish you would keep in mind.

1. The People You Are Writing About Are People

Not only are they people — they are people with families. Sensationalistic headlines, especially ones based on gossip, can be hurtful to not only the person in the middle of a mental health crisis, but their family and friends as well. Report the news, but be respectful about what tone you use and what details you include.

2. You Are Not Exempt From Suicide Reporting “Best Practices”

Posting details about a suicide, such as the method used, are rarely — if ever — crucial to a story, and guidelines for how to report on suicide are readily available for anyone to see.

Even if you’re a publication that focuses on “soft news,” you’re not exempt from reporting on suicide in a responsible way. According to the guidelines, the risk of additional suicides increases when the story “explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.” This means when you sensationalize suicide — and then neglect to include resources — you actually can put vulnerable people at risk. We should talk and report about suicide, but we can do so while keeping our audiences in mind.

3. You Can Talk About Suicide in a Way That Helps Other People

We shouldn’t ignore stories that have to do with suicide. Writing about suicide isn’t the problem — it’s how we write about it. “Celebrity stories” about suicide can open the door for important conversations, like how St. John being a suicide loss survivor increases his chances of struggling with suicidal ideation and behavior. As his ex-wife told Entertainment Weekly:

No parent should ever have to bury their child, and for those who do, it is a nightmare that haunts you forever. The death of our beloved son Julian, has taken a toll on both of us. He is an actor and while he may appear whole on the outside, his heart is broken. As a society we need to start taking mental health seriously and realize that no one is immune.

It shouldn’t take the spread of false information to get these kinds of quotes. When it comes to reporting on suicide, we need to get it right from the beginning.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Lead photo via Kristoff St. John’s Facebook page

Originally published: October 24, 2017
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