When Writing About Suicide or Mental Illness or Addiction


I stumbled on an excellent article from aportiaadamsadventure.wordpress.com in which the author discusses college training for journalists on handling a suicide story. The author is applying that learning to her fiction.

Below are a few excerpts from the article. You may read the complete entry here: http://aportiaadamsadventure.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/writing-about-suicide/#comment-520

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 thankfully, 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.

***

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.

***

The article writer is working on a fictional story set in the 1930’s. She asks readers for input about mental health support and treatment from the time. I reply to her request as follows:

Excellent article! You ask for insight from the 30’s. I’ll share a personal anecdote. I learned in my fifties about my maternal grandfather’s commitment to an insane asylum. I learned it by finding personal papers of my mother’s that referenced the event. My mother had them stashed away. Never in my entire lifetime had my mother told that story to me. Instead she had painted a picture for me of a talented man who was ahead of his time. From the same stash of papers, I learned my grandfather physically abused my grandmother. The societal code of the time was silence about anything untoward, especially if the family had any social prominence. So much so that long after my grandfather was dead, long after I was a married adult and a mother, my mother never mentioned the dark side or mental illness of my grandfather. I learned about it after my mother left her home, and I was cleaning out the place.

After sending that message, I recalled more about the story of my grandfather. It was set in the Great Depression. He was in the throes of losing the family dairy and farm. His wife died, leaving him to care for seven children from age 14 to a newborn infant, all while running a home milk delivery business (done from a horse drawn cart) and running a crop and dairy farm. It was in a time when a family grew their own food and preserved it, so a huge garden had to be tended and defended from pests, then harvested and put up. Kids had to get to school, be dressed and fed. The wee ones required care 24/7.

As my grandmother lay dying of cancer, my grandfather or my mother, the oldest child, injected grandmother with morphine to control her pain. I am uncertain about why he did it exactly, but my grandfather began using his wife’s morphine himself and became addicted. In the 1930’s, my grandfather’s addiction was treated as mental illness in the insane asylum. (I’m sure there’s more to the narrative that I will never know.)

All of this tragic story was hidden from me by my mother. She did tell me that after my grandmother’s death, grandfather fell apart and abandoned the farm and the children. She said my grandmother had been the glue that held the family together. After her death, the children tried to operate the farm, but, as children, they failed. Ultimately, in the midst of depression, the children were split up and sent to various homes, where they were grudgingly taken in and resented as another mouth to feed in what were difficult times.

The point is there is always a backstory to suicide. Often it is mental illness or addiction. And there is often a backstory to addiction and mental illness, too. When writing about the subject of suicide, mental illness or addiction, be sure to make the reader aware of the backstory, since it provides context for the current event you are writing about.

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