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Why the NYPD Should Not Share Videos of Officers 'Saving' People From Suicide

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Editor's Note

The video mentioned below is not included in the piece because it could be triggering for some readers who’ve experienced suicide attempts or suicide loss.

If you need support, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Last week, the official Twitter account for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) shared a video on Twitter of officers saving a young person from suicide. The dramatic video was meant to celebrate the work of the officers and highlight the stress of their jobs. While I believe that is something worth celebrating, the NYPD also has a duty to protect. With this video they could’ve done harm they did not intend.

As a suicide loss survivor, the video is painful to watch. I lost my friend Malaya when I was 13, almost 14 years ago, and it’s still hard to see depictions of suicide. Even a staged suicide in the TV show “Sherlock” had me rattled, and when I watched “The Office” for the first time, my fiancé advised that I skip the episode where a suicide is staged. But those were things I could avoid if I chose to. The NYPD’s tweet was unavoidable for anyone who follows local NYC issues on Twitter or television. A quick scroll through the 158 retweets on the original video shows that many precincts throughout the city shared it, and that doesn’t account for the 440 likes. The video has been viewed more than 18,800 times.

That’s not to say I want to be protected from all mention of suicide. In 2007, I got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk and I have never looked back. I work on, talk and think about the cause every day. What I’m asking for is safe and responsible discussions of suicide.

Research spanning decades tells us reporting on suicide impacts suicide rates. A study by Dr. Mark Sinyor found, in part, that “Negative media coverage related to suicide can increase suicide rates.” Reckless depictions of the methods of suicide can also be dangerous for those who are struggling with their mental health, whether they are aware of it or not. Discussions of method can be triggering and can lead to copy cats., a resource developed by suicide prevention experts in collaboration with journalists, recommends avoiding describing or depicting the method of suicide. Given the nature of the video the method is explicit. The work the NYPD does is dramatic enough without the clickbait nature of a dramatic video.

The video also implies that police are the appropriate reaction to a mental health crisis, when we should be striving to reach people further upstream. Before a person’s mental health deteriorates to the point of crisis, there should be a culture that encourages help seeking and receiving support. Emergency services should include mental health professionals and peers. The video, by virtue of its dramatic framing, also furthers the myth that suicide attempts are just dramatic attention-seeking behaviors. In actuality, self-harm and expressions of suicidality should be taken seriously.

At the end of video, the onscreen text reads, “They were able to safely take him into custody.” A person in a mental health crisis should not be “taken into custody” — they should be given support. The language in the video implies that a person in suicidal crisis is a criminal, and that’s what the police were responding to. It’s the same thinking that created the phrase “committed suicide,” at a time when suicide attempts were punishable by law. We know better these days. People in crisis are not in need of incarceration, they are in need of help.

Lastly, I wish the NYPD had not shared the video for the sake of the young person they saved. Hopefully this person will go on to live, but this video might haunt them forever. Imagine the whole world seeing your most painful moment. It should be up to each of us to disclose our mental health experiences, but in the video we see the apartment in enough detail that the person could be identified either now or in the future.

I want to celebrate officers who save lives. I hope in the future NYPD chooses to share photos of the officers to celebrate their hard, life-saving work, rather than posting body cam footage. Last year, for the first time, the NYPD hosted The Hope Awards with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention where they recognized officers who had saved people in crisis. We need to find supportive and humane ways to help people when they’re suicidal — and I hope the NYPD considers how what they post on social media can affect the people they’re trying to help. 

Screenshot via @NYPDnews on Twitter

Originally published: March 5, 2020
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