It’s a serious health problem with extensive consequences that demands our attention, but the right kind of attention – the one that is only demanded through appropriate dissemination of information.
The prevention and control of suicide is a matter than can be undertaken by all, but time and time again, research has showed us that media professionals play a significant role in it. They have a special opportunity to educate the public about suicide prevention, but this opportunity could, if not considered with care, negatively influence vulnerable individuals.
Dr Sandra Scicluna spoke to Newspoint about this in view of the recently reported cases in a prison setting.
What stressors can put an individual at a higher risk of suicide?
The following put offenders at a
higher risk of suicide:
Depression Any serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder Substance Abuse The combination of mental illness and substance abuse Borderline and Antisocial Personality Disorders Impulsivity and aggression History of suicide attempt or family history of suicide Serious physical illness or chronic pain Long Sentence Severe guilt or shame Rape or threat of rape Any recent drug/alcohol ingestion - as depression usually sets in when the euphoric effects wear off.
And is suicide more common among men or women and why?
Successful suicide is more common in man although women tend to try to commit suicide more. Women tend to be diagnosed more with depression. Men tend to successfully commit suicide about 3 times as much as women. Why this happens is not easy to answer because committing suicide is a complex thing. It could be that women are more prone to seek help. There could also be a cultural element in that boys are told to ‘act like a man’ and not cry. It also could be a case of self-medication gone wrong – of not seeking help.
Are certain groups of the Maltese population at an increased risk of committing suicide? Which ones?
The major causes of suicide are depression, feeling of hopelessness and abusing of drugs or alcohol. Another factor that might impinge on suicides is a sudden change in economic status – What Durkheim terms ‘Anomie’. So yes, there is a greater risk of committing suicide for certain groups, however these groups are not specific to Malta.
Is suicide contagion a real thing?
Yes, reporting of suicides and exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviour can result in an increase in suicides. In order to prevent suicide, the media should report factual information, avoid sensationalism and not be repetitive. Giving a lot of media coverage to suicides will increase suicides especially when the victim is glorifies or there is a coverage of recent negative life events. This would lead to copy-cat suicide.
Despite the fact that Maltese media does not usually report on suicides, we’ve been hearing more about them lately, especially in a prison setting. What concerns does this raise?
Suicide in the prison setting is slightly different than suicide outside prison. Although contagion might still happen, the fact that these are reported factually decreases copycat suicides. Other variables are at play here. What is of concern is that there seems to be a lack of observation of inmates. There are some high-risk time frames that put prisoners at more risks. These are:
- The first 24 hours of confinement
- Intoxication or withdrawal
- Waiting for trial
- During sentencing
- After count time
- Around holidays
- After visitation
- Impending release
- After receiving bad news (i.e. death of a loved one, divorce, etc.)
Observation of inmates, isolation in proper suicide observation rooms (when the person is actively suicidal), will help reduce suicide rates in prison. Obviously, inmates would also need the necessary psychological and social help.
Is there an ethical way of reporting on suicides? And do you think that when journalists report on them, they do so respectfully?
Suicides must be reported factually, with no sensationalism involved. One needs to take into consideration that the person who has committed suicide has left a number of people (relatives and friends) in shock. These people need to be respected. In Malta, journalists do not usually report suicides, with the exception of those that happen in prison. In these cases, rather than the suicide itself there is the denunciation of the prison authorities in play. So yes, I think that most journalists in Malta are very careful when reporting suicides.
Talk to us a bit about the prison education & re-entry project you’re involved in:
The project, called Participation for Employment at CCF: Social Inclusion through Education and Training, is run by the Faculty of Education and the aim is to develop a strategic plan for the prison on 12 different subjects. This project addresses numerous facets and I am the team leader of the Restorative Justice working group and the Re-entry into the Labour Market working group.
I really strongly believe that the increased access to educational opportunities for the incarcerated is a valid way of creating purposeful activity that has the potential to help them adjust to their situation.