Tragic, not heroic

Don’t get me wrong. I love sports. In fact, early in my career, I thought I wanted to be a sportswriter the rest of my life.

But I’m not the kind of guy who creates idols. And, frankly, that’s what much of sports writing is: making heroes out of people who probably aren’t. Case in point: the recent murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher and the day-after media coverage, particularly in the national sports media.

It was an unspeakable tragedy on so many levels. And, because it occurred to a prominent member of society, and because it happened in such a public way, it is a news story, there should be no doubt about that. But if you read this story by ESPN, you’ll soon see why news writers report the news and sportswriters report the sports.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has been working with the media for more than three decades to change the way suicide is reported without shoving real news under the rug to be forgotten. To that end, SPRC produced this document, “Safe Reporting on Suicide,” to aid reporters.

It starts off with what not to do:

  • Avoid detailed descriptions of the suicide, including specifics of the method and location.
  • Avoid romanticizing someone who has died by suicide.
  • Avoid featuring tributes by friends or relatives.
  • Avoid glamorizing the suicide of a celebrity.

There’s a reason why the SPRC makes these recommendations. Research has indicated positive attention given to someone who has attempted suicide can lead vulnerable individuals who desire such attention to take their own lives.

When a well-known person or celebrity — let’s face it, that’s what a professional athlete is — attempts suicide, it can promote copycat attempts among vulnerable people. As the SPRC states: “Do not let the glamour of the celebrity obscure any mental health or substance abuse problems that may have contributed to the celebrity’s death.”

Furthermore, detailed descriptions increase the risk of a vulnerable individual imitating the act. Of course, ESPN blew right through all the red lights on this one. It’s almost as if the staff said to itself, “People are going to think bad things about him. We can’t have that. There’s a good side to him, too.”

There very likely is more to this story we will never know. But here are some facts that you need to know about suicide. Like more than half, and perhaps as much as 90 percent of those who attempt suicide have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder.

Also, people whose suicide act appears to be triggered by a particular event often have significant underlying mental health problems that may not be readily evident, even to family and friends. And, in the case of murder-suicides, as was the case here, research suggests other underlying factors would probably lead to a clinical diagnosis of depression.

ESPN and the rest of the sports media out there who followed suit should have included a referral phone number and information about local crisis intervention services, such as the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline connects callers to a certified crisis center.

Additionally, they should have emphasized recent treatment advances for depression and other mental illness. They could have interviewed a mental health professional knowledgeable about the role of treatment or screening for mental disorders as a preventive measure.

Instead, they made Belcher out to be a hero, like they always do.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Belcher was a “nice guy” to those who dealt with him on a regular basis away from the football field. But he was no hero. A hero wouldn’t gun down the mother of his infant daughter, shooting her multiple times, in front of his own mother.

A hero wouldn’t drive off. A hero wouldn’t “run away” from his troubles by taking his own life in front of coaches and staff members who are trying to persuade him otherwise.

If you are depressed, or having thoughts or feelings that make you want to do harm to yourself or others, there is help out there for you. Tell someone close to you what’s going on, or call the number above to get in touch with someone who can help you immediately.

There’s nothing heroic about suicide–not of a celebrity, an athlete, not anyone. Don’t become just another statistic.