As a journalist, reporting on suicide can be daunting – the experts say if we do it wrong, we might contribute to someone’s death.
“The way in which the media report on suicide can influence other suicides,” according to Headline, which works with media in Ireland on responsible reporting of mental illness and suicide.
But it’s important still to cover the issue, to make sure it stays in the spotlight so policymakers know they need to direct sufficient resources to preventing suicide.
So it is probably good that a (relatively) recent episode of the documentary series The Guards: Inside the K on Virgin Media One followed gardaí in north-west Dublin on calls dealing with mental-health issues, self-harm, and suicide.
The 45-minute episode casts the Gardaí in a very favourable light, which may have been necessary to get the kind of access the director got – sitting in on briefings, riding along with gardaí in their cars, interviewing high-ranking guards.
The gardaí in the episode come across as unfailingly kind, patient, sympathetic and professional. While I am sure this is often the case, with many gardaí, no group of people is in reality this uniformly good.
Still, it is heartening to watch these guards do the best they can to respond to the needs of the people they go to help, who are really struggling. Some of the scenes are wrenching to watch.
While it is clear that the team behind the episode thought about how to put it together without harming vulnerable viewers, I think they got a few things wrong.
And I wonder how they got permission from the civilians depicted in the episode to include their stories, voices, and images.
Out on a Ledge
Since reporting on suicide without causing further harm can be tricky, the Samaritans have published a guide to doing it right.
Dr Patrick Devitt, a consultant psychiatrist and co-author of the book Suicide: A Modern Obsession, says that any journalist or producer working on a piece dealing with suicide should probably have the guidelines in front of them.
If they have any questions about the guidelines, Headline works with media organisations to help them put the guidelines into practice, said Áine O’Meara, Headline programme leader, by email.
Shauna Keogh, who is credited at the end of the episode as having “developed, filmed and directed” it, said by email that she took the Samaritans’ guidelines “into account”.
However, the guidelines say to “Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge. Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff …”
And the episode, starting about 38 minutes in, includes footage of a man doing exactly this – standing on the edge of a particular bridge, apparently preparing to jump.
A garda who was there goes on to narrate what happened, and the episode cuts back and forth between the garda sitting in a chair and telling the story, and footage of the man on the bridge.
The garda saves the man, and, as the garda recalls, when the ambulance arrived, the man was crying and saying, “I’m sorry.” The garda tells viewers that he hasn’t been able to track down the man or his family since.
So does this segment go against the Samaritans’ guidelines? When I sent queries about this and several other specific scenes, and how they fit with the guidelines, Keogh, the director, did not respond to each one individually.
“I am taken aback at … the queries you raise on media guidelines, which are not in line with the views of the suicide support groups we engaged with,” she said by email.
O’Meara, of Headline, was more direct about this segment of the episode: “If you want the black and white answer, does it cross a line on the guidelines? Yes.”
And Devitt, the psychiatrist and author, after watching the episode, said: “If I was to criticise, I would say that bit on the bridge was pretty sensational.” (The guidelines also say to “Aim for sensitive, non sensationalising coverage.”)
But following these guidelines isn’t simple. There’s a lot of interpretation involved. A lot of judgement calls to be made.
For O’Meara, the scene on the bridge, while it may have contravened the Samaritans’ guidelines, also had a positive side.
“It is so important for audiences to know that recovery from mental ill health or suicidal ideation is possible, and when people are literally brought back from the ledge, the overwhelming emotion is either relief or regret or a mix of both,” she said.
“Including this scene was important for that reason,” she said.
A 999 Call
Another very difficult segment of the episode, around 19 minutes in, has the guards being called out to a home where they find a man with a stab wound and a knife.
Detectives later review the 999 call, in which the man says he has cut himself and that he is going to die.
The 999 operator keeps the man on the line as the guards race to try to get there in time to help. Gardaí and Dublin Fire Brigade force their way in and do their best to save the man, but he dies.
The Samaritans’ guidelines say to be careful “when referring to the methods and context of a suicide”.
“Avoid giving too much detail … While saying someone hanged themselves or took an overdose is acceptable, detail about the type of ligature or type and quantity of tablets used is not,” the guidelines say.
In this segment, a garda describes the specific length of the knife the person used. Not to mention, the viewer is invited to listen as the person dies. Is this too much detail?
“Contrary to a commonly held belief, the manner of a suicide is not discouraged by the guidelines. The detailed method which may be used is,” Keogh said, and then she gave the hanging/ligature example from the guidelines.
Talking about the episode overall, O’Meara, of Headline, said: “There are certainly things I would have recommended doing differently … Some of the features you mentioned, the observational spoken piece with the knife detail, some of the visuals on the bridge.”
From another perspective, though, the guidelines also advise “Never say a method is quick, easy, painless or certain to result in death.”
And listening to the man on the 999 call suffer and cry out in pain, and call for help, no one could think it was easy or painless.
These and other segments in the episode show very vulnerable people in very difficult circumstances.
The footage of the man on the bridge is shot from too far away to be able to identify him. But if the garda who saved him has never been able to track him down, I would bet that the director did not get the man’s permission to have this terrible moment in his life broadcast on TV and the internet.
The audio of the man dying from the stab wound while on the 999 call, along with the details given of the postcode and road where it happened, probably could not be used to identify him. But his family might well recognise his voice – and I can only imagine how hard that would be to listen to.
Perhaps the most identifiable civilian shown in the episode is a woman who is brought into a Garda station about seven minutes into the episode, crying out, “Oh God, oh God!” and “I’ve done nothing wrong! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
Along with hearing her voice, we can see her body shape and size, the clothes she is wearing, how she wears her hair, and the shape of her face – although her face itself is blurred.
I suspect her friends, family, or work colleagues would be able to identify her without too much trouble, during this difficult moment, which she might not want them, or the rest of the world, to see.
I would hate to think that if I were in crisis, and needed help from the emergency services, I might be filmed in this moment of extreme vulnerability – and that footage might be broadcast on television, and put on the internet to be replayed for years, without my permission.
So how did Keogh and her team go about getting the permission of the people whose stories are shown in the episode?
“This was a difficult programme to make and we were very conscious of the very strong emotions that may be aroused by viewing, as well as issues of privacy,” Keogh said by email.
When asked again, and asked specifically whether she’d got signed releases from the people depicted, she said: “I have tried to be helpful but do not want to add anything at this time,” she said.
When asked the same question again, she did not reply. Asked about the same issue late last week, neither Virgin Media nor the Garda press office have yet replied.
The Gardaí are “obliged under human-rights law to treat everyone with dignity and respect, including respect for the right to privacy”, said Doireann Ansbro, senior research and policy officer with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.
“The Gardaí have committed to a new era of community-based policing based on respect for human rights, consent and trust. Participation in this programme may raise questions about the extent of this commitment,” she said.
I haven’t gone through each segment of the episode here, one by one, comparing it to the Samaritans’ guidelines. But I think Keogh did a lot of things right.
The episode quite bravely took on a very thorny set of issues including both mental illness and suicide. It gave the Gardaí a chance to hammer home how challenging these issues are for them to deal with, and to suggest reforms.
It did this while following quite a few of the Samaritans’ guidelines, and including phone numbers for helplines for anyone affected by the issues depicted.
However, I also think Keogh got a good few things wrong. And I remain very curious about how she and her team got permission from the civilians involved, or their families, to include them.
O’Meara said Headline would have advised Keogh to do some things differently. “But for the most part, given the medium, they told the story well,” she said.
“I imagine all these issues you’re raising is largely why many programme makers have steered away from the topic – it’s incredibly challenging, logistically, visually, and ethically, to tell that story,” she said.
Note: If you have been effected by any of the issues raised in this article you can call Console’s 24/7 suicide helpline, 1800 247 247, or the Samaritans helpline, 116 123.