Virginia Woolf: ‘One day she is “sunk fathoms deep”, another trying to keep afloat in a “great lake of melancholy”.’ Photograph: EO Hoppé/Corbis
In J-school (I graduated from the UWO Masters program in Journalism) we spent a few lectures on covering suicides. It was one of those subjects that caused a lot of discussion inside the classroom and even more so after we left it. The basic question of how seriously to take the idea that covering a suicide gave the public the idea that they too could do ‘it,’ was one that continued to be debated in the various newsrooms I was hired in to.
I am cognizant of that [essentially] unanswered question as I start writing this latest casebook for Portia Adams. I am in no way ‘covering’ a suicide since this is fiction, but the basics of the case Portia is working on revolves around suicide and more specifically, a critical look at the psychological profile of a suicidal person.
An article from the Poynter Institute written a decade ago remains one of the best on the subject if you are interested in reading more, but this is the quote that I always keep in mind when this subject comes up (which thank fully, is not that often, but still happens more than it should):
Mental illness is almost always present in a case of suicide. To report on suicide without discussing the role of mental illness is like reporting on a tornado without mentioning the underlying weather conditions. Tornados don’t whip up out of nowhere, and neither does suicide.
Seeing as Portia suffers from some form of bipolar disorder as I suspect her grandfather did, this seems like a case I can use to delve into some of her issues.
Just because context helps when writing, Statistics Canada and Health Canada obviously follow this subject very closely, and their latest numbers are:
Suicide is a major cause of premature and preventable death. It is estimated, that in 2009 alone, there were about 100,000 years of potential life lost to Canadians under the age of 75 as a result of suicides. Research shows that mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; and that more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.1,2 Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60% suffering from this condition.
Obviously one of my next steps is to do some research on suicide rates in London in the 1930s and what kind of stigma was attached to mental illness at the time. Also, I will need to know what kind of support people had from their medical community.
By the 1930s, Europe had dropped well into the Great Depression and therefore training for medical staff would have been harder to come by, and the support for institutions would have also dried up as money was refocused on the majority of the public who needed basic survival aid.
If anyone has suggestions on articles or contacts please let me know in the comments below? Thanks!