Reporting suicide: how not to kill your readers

Yesterday, as I went to work, news broke that actor and comedian Robin Williams had been found dead in his flat in a suspected suicide. Today, as I woke up, the UK newspaper front pages were being released on Twitter.

The Sun and the Metro have decided to go with details of how Robin Williams killed himself, while the Mail and the Mirror focussed on the reasons why. (The Mail Online goes into excruciating detail on the methods Williams used, but does so in the body copy of an article.) All four are cheerfully ignoring the Samaritan’s guidelines on media reporting of suicide, which cite evidence that “Vulnerable individuals may be influenced to engage in imitative behaviours by reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is extensive, prominent, sensationalist and/or explicitly describes the method of suicide.”

Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.

The reason the media isn’t supposed to talk about methods used is because that knowledge can turn someone who is passively suicidal into someone with an active plan. Knowing the distances dropped, the ligatures used, the medication taken, the blades employed, all of these things can give a suicidal person the knowledge of how to actually do the deed, how to go about taking their thoughts from the realm of the hypothetical into the realm of the real.

Of course, if they want, they can just Google that information, but that requires an act of will on their part; there’s a barrier that acts as another check, a moment where someone might look at what they are doing and consider other possibilities. Google also places helpline numbers prominently in its search results, which is more than some media manages in its reporting. (Side note: there is a story to be written about what changed in September 2010.) Plastering that knowledge all over every newspaper someone sees on their walk to work, in their local supermarket, in their train carriage, negates that barrier completely. It says: here is how you successfully kill yourself.

Even if they don’t contain step-by-step instructions on how to kill yourself, a wall of front pages tying suicide to a specific cause lends justification to a suicidal person’s internal logic that says suicide is a rational response. Suicidal thoughts are, for many people, a temporary problem; distracting yourself from them is a valid and sensible response, and sometimes the only way to stop yourself acting on them. It’s hard to maintain that distraction when a celebrity dies in this way; it’s harder still when the media seems to buy into the idea that money troubles, for example, are a reason for suicide. There is, inevitably, a search for meaning, and a desire to rationalise what’s happened, but reductionist and intrusive stories hurt the families of those who have died by telling them, in effect, that there might have been something they could have changed. They also tell suicidal readers that there are good reasons to die, sometimes; they reinforce the grim logic of acute depression. You can do this even with the most gentle, most well-meaning attempts to memorialise someone’s life.

The flip side of the media response is a slew of articles tying Robin Williams’ comedic genius inextricably to his depression and struggles with addiction. But he was brilliant despite his mental illness, not because of it. We search desperately in cases like this for a spark of hope, a positive spin, and find it in “divine madness”: the idea that his genius could only exist alongside his sadness. But without his brilliance, the madness would remain, and without his madness, the brilliance might have shone so much more brightly. You can be a genius without being depressed, and generally those without major chronic illnesses get a lot more done and have longer lives. There is a strange ambiguity about the “divine madness” narrative that feeds in, at lower levels, to anxieties about getting treatment. What if, without the depression, I am no longer me? What if I lose my creative spark? What if I lose the last of what makes life possible?

But the onus is still on us, the mentally ill, to seek treatment despite our (not always unfounded) fears that it might not work and might even harm us. We are told to talk about depression more, when talking is just about the last thing a depressed person wants to or feels able to do, and when most people aren’t interested in listening. We’re told to seek help, when in reality that help is often unavailable. The last time I needed serious therapy, it took 12 months for an appointment to become available; that was before the current crisis. I cannot imagine I would be able to negotiate the barriers to NHS assistance if I were suicidal in London this morning, even in my position of relative wealth, insight and access. But it’s entirely plausible that Robin Williams did manage to get the help he needed, and it just wasn’t enough. It isn’t enough for a lot of people. A lot of people die despite excellent care. We need more research, we need more treatment options, we need a revolution in mental healthcare. What we get are front pages that make our illnesses worse.

Fundamentally, the media doesn’t care about the guidelines. It doesn’t care about the people they’re meant to protect. Mentally ill people who die come in two types: the talented and brilliant, for whom death is an inevitable part of their brilliance, and the poor and underprivileged, whose deaths are irrelevant except where they interact with an existing story. The media doesn’t care about our deaths, unless we’re famous, and then it will pore over every gruesome detail regardless of how that might affect those of us still living, still struggling, still reading the news and still fighting for hope every day. What does it matter, after all, if a few more people succeed in killing themselves in the next few weeks? They were depressed. There was nothing anyone could have done.

Pocket Lint #19: make me a mandrake

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The American Room: “But for most of us life happens against a backdrop of intersecting off-white walls. Those are our homes, plain and a little grim. Our fantasy homes are busy with bright things yet old. Our pins and dreams are not beige. When we sleep we leave the computer behind and step out onto the widow’s walk, to wait for our sailors to come home from the sea.”

“I used to be a covered woman. I know what it’s like to be invisible.”

We are Sansa: “A Song of Ice and Fire is, in part, a series of books devoted to examining what happens when systems break down. Arya, who was never comfortable with the Westeros status quo to begin with, is slightly better set up to deal with immediate consequences of Ned’s execution and everything that follows. Sansa, on the other hand, becomes a prisoner of the chaos that develops around her. She has no coping mechanisms and no fallback position because she’s been raised to trust the system that is failing her.”

“If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.”

First night in Kyiv: “This was the third country in which I’d cried in a shower and checked my body for bruises as a by-product of trying to become a journalist.”

He’s still alive: Jenn Frank’s Game Journalism Prize-winning essay on That Dragon, Cancer.

Fish plays Pokemon, presumably in an attempt to update the infinite monkey theorem.

Turning postpartum depression into performance art.

I write this with a baseball bat by the bed.

BrbXOXO: live streams of sex webcam feeds when the performers are away.

Tumblr of the week: Manfeels Park, with apologies to Jane Austen and the BBC.

Poem of the week: Twickenham Garden, by John Donne.

Game of the week: One Chance.

Pocket Lint #18: mean meaning

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“We are still at a point that emoji semiotics are extremely malleable and where meaning can be actively created. This is especially true where the gaps between Japanese and Western culture have created a vacuum between original intent and subsequent interpretation, leading to a corral of seldom-used emojis, ready to have new meaning assigned to them.”

Here are some very small things Twitter could do to begin to address the problem of widespread abuse and harassment on its service.

The problems of understanding cunnilingus in the Middle Ages: “This constant emphasis on the male experience is all we have to try and see the full range of sexual experience.”

NOW THEN: an extraordinary piece by Adam Curtis on the history of surveillance, computing, AI, crime prediction and a great deal else. I’ve read it three times looking for a key quote and it’s too enmeshed to produce one. You should read it.

“The reason sickness is undesirable is not that it causes distress or discomfort but that it results in what is often called “lost productivity”. This is a sinister and absurd notion, predicated on the greedy fallacy of counting chickens before they have hatched. “Workplace absence through sickness was reported to cost British business £32bn a year,” the researcher claimed in Metro: a normal way of phrasing things today, but one with curious implications. The idea seems to be that business already has that money even though it hasn’t earned it yet and employees who fail to maintain “productivity” as a result of sickness or other reasons are, in effect, stealing this as yet entirely notional sum from their employers.”

Law of unintended consequences: Key-copying apps, designed to help you out by storing backups of your keys in case you get locked out, are also a potential boon for burglars.

The Darkness, an excellent comic drawn in 24 hours.

Pathfinder’s new iconic shaman is a badass trans dwarf woman.

The simple ways in which Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is more progressive than most AAA games.

“what tech-focused people often see of the games industry is the ugly side — for example, the rampant misogyny of mainstreams game developers, thoroughly illustrated by Anita Sarkeesian’s series Feminist Frequency. In response, there are frequent calls for better representation (of women, people of color, queer people, etc) in games — but what we often miss is that these people are, themselves, making games, which usually do include such representations — but which all too often go ignored or financially unsupported” – the missed connections between tech feminism and videogame zinesters

Tumblr of the week: Annals of Nope

Poem of the week: not one of my choosing, this week; instead I’m going to direct you to Ars Poetica, a new twice-weekly email of hand-picked poetry by a friend of mine.

Game of the week: Nested, because of reasons.

Pocket Lint #15: fear and loathing

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Ghosts of the tsunami.

“Even in dire situations, optimism can fuel innovation and lead to new tools to eliminate suffering. But if you never really see the people who are suffering, your optimism can’t help them. You will never change their world.

What can “Leaning In” do for us when once we do succeed by its metrics, unending public abuse awaits us? What happens when we finally establish ourselves on platforms, and then are chased from them? When success means needing security? When we are punished mercilessly for the very representation we are told to seek? When “representation” is what we need, but “visibility” destroys us?”

Prey is an astonishing, brutal, beautiful piece of writing about one woman’s experience of rape, her reactions and the subsequent trials where she was a witness.

No one is coming to take away your shitty toys: “The rise of mature games that don’t feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn’t harm you at all.”

As flies to wanton boys are we to Facebook.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

This place is not a place of honour: how to keep people away from nuclear waste in 10,000 years’ time.

Tumblr of the week: Postapocalyptia.

Poem of the week: Emptying Town, Nick Flynn, with thanks to Leigh.

Game of the week: The End, a game about philosophy and death.

Facebook, let’s talk about harm

In news-that-ought-to-be-satire-but-isn’t, the AV Club reports, via New Scientist, that Facebook has been manipulating users’ feeds in order to test whether they can manipulate their emotions. 689,003 users, to be precise.

The full paper is here, and makes for interesting reading. The researchers found that, yes, emotional states are contagious across networks, even if you’re only seeing someone typing something and not interacting with them face-to-face. They also found that people who don’t see emotional words are less expressive – a “withdrawal effect”.

Where things get rather concerning is the part where Facebook didn’t bother telling any of its test subjects that they were being tested. The US has a few regulations governing clinical research that make clear informed consent must be given by human test subjects. Informed consent requires subjects to know that research is occurring, be given a description of the risks involved, and have the option to refuse to participate without being penalised. None of these things were available to the anonymous people involved in the study.

As it happens, I have to use Facebook for work. I also happen to have a chronic depressive disorder.

It would be interesting to know whether Facebook picked me for their experiment. It’d certainly be interesting to know whether they screened for mental health issues, and how they justified the lack of informed consent about the risks involved, given they had no way to screen out those with psychiatric and psychological disorders that might be exacerbated by emotional manipulations, however tangential or small.

The researchers chose to manipulate the news feed in order to remove or amplify emotional content, rather than by observing the effect of that content after the fact. There’s an argument here that Facebook manipulates the news feed all the time anyway, therefore this is justifiable – but unless Facebook is routinely A/B testing on its users’ happiness and emotional wellbeing, the two things are not equivalent. Testing where you click is different to testing what you feel. A 0.02% increase in video watch rates is not the same as a 0.02% increase in emotionally negative statements. One of these things has the potential for harm.

The effect the researchers found, in the end, was very small. That goes some way towards explaining their huge sample size: the actual contagion effect of negativity or positivity on any one individual is so tiny that it’s statistically significant only across a massive pool of people.

But we know that only because they did the research. What if the effect had been larger? What if the effect on the general population was small, but individuals with certain characteristics – perhaps, say, those with chronic depressive disorders – experienced much larger effects? At what point would the researchers have decided it would be a good idea to tell people, after the fact, that they had been deliberately harmed?

Pocket Lint #14: human machines

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Tiny letters are what blogs used to be: “a not-quite public and not-quite private way to share information”.

David Sedaris gets a Fitbit. Contains cows giving birth, kidney stones, litter-picking, and a stream-of-consciousness antidote to the anodyne vision of the quantified self.

If this toaster doesn’t like you, it will leave you for somebody else.

“Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature. Every age also has a theory about the past and the present, of what was and what is, a notion of time: a theory of history… our era has disruption.”

An interview with the creators of ClickHole: “We believe every piece of content that goes up on the Internet deserves to be clicked upon, skimmed, shared, and rashly commented upon by millions of users.”

The internet comment apocalypse inspired by a recipe for rainbow cake.

Shaka, when the walls fell: how one episode of Star Trek traced the limits of human communication and suggested an alternative. “If we pretend that ‘Shaka, when the walls fell’ is a signifier, then its signified is not the fictional mythological character Shaka, nor the myth that contains whatever calamity caused the walls to fall, but the logic by which the situation itself came about. Tamarian language isn’t really language at all, but machinery.”

Tumblr of the week: White men wearing Google Glass, and its counterpart.

Poem of the week: Having a Coke with you, Frank O’Hara.
“and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank”

Game of the week: Arpeggio. Play it with your eyes closed.

Pocket Lint #13: Bloody Mary

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Periods don’t have glitter in them.

Occasionally, about once a year, I reread Myths over Miami. It’s a fascinating story very well told, and I am immensely grateful that the internet lets me keep coming back to it, long after the print paper it originally existed within has been forgotten.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be clinically insane. I wonder how aware you might be of your own insanity. I wonder if it happens so gradually you don’t notice, or if it’s sudden, like a light switch being flicked from off to on. Can it be flicked back, or is it irrevocable?” Possibly the best depiction I have ever read of what it’s like to live with chronic mental illness of the type I experience.

When my son was born, all of my questions suddenly had a very basic answer. I would love for him to grow up as I did, enjoying shooting but understanding that every gun is loaded and you never touch one without an adult and you don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. But more than that, I’d love to believe that he’ll have no mischievous accidents, no suicidal depressions or homicidal rages, no moments of weakness or fits of pique or questions that can be answered by the pull of a trigger. As with all the other scenarios in which I’m the good guy with the gun, I can never be sure. I carry my permit, as I always have. But now all my guns live with my father.”

“Martin Amis’s book is also the reason I keep saying I am sexist and not that I was sexist. I will have to keep fighting this thing about myself. I will make mistakes along the way – my id will take over and I’ll say the wrong thing from time to time. This is an article about acceptance, not a self-awarded pardon.”

Tumblr of the week: Olivia When, which is full of beautiful animations of people stealing dogs. Olivia is the person who made this gif about accepting compliments in the style of a superb bird-of-paradise.

Poem of the week: The Practice of Magical Evocation, Diane DiPrima

Game of the week: A Dark Room, also on iOS - strange, saddening, compulsive, unfolding like a very creepy flower.

Pocket Lint #12: service industry

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This title doesn’t work, but you’ll click on it anyway.

“Really, freedom of speech is beside the point. Facebook and Twitter want to be the locus of communities, but they seem to blanch at the notion that such communities would want to enforce norms—which, of course, are defined by shared values rather than by the outer limits of the law.”

The only way to keep user information safe is not to store it.

Relevant to the Assassin’s Creed: Unity controversy this week over the lack of women: “what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?”

This is the Blue Shell of collapse, the Blue Shell of financial crisis, the Blue Shell of the New Gilded Age. This is the Blue Shell in Facebook blue, where anything you’d do with it already will have been done anyway on your behalf without you knowing it.”

On Matter, here’s an incredibly long interview with Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, which you won’t read. On sites that aren’t Matter, here are a couple of good summaries, which you probably will. Serve your readers, or they’ll go elsewhere.

Tumblr of the week: When Women Refuse

Poem of the week: And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

Free game of the week: The Last Tango

 

Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice - and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

The nature of madness

A lot’s been said about the killing of six people by a man, possibly mentally ill, certainly with a gun, certainly with a deep hatred of women and a deep anger over what he sees as their rejection. I don’t want to go over old ground; here are a few excellent pieces that are worth reading on this whole sorry mess.

What is worth saying, though, and what I’ve not seen said elsewhere, is a little about the nature of madness, and how it might apply here. It is pointless to go over whether the killer had a diagnosis, as that diagnosis cannot hope to explain his actions, any more than a diagnosis of OCD can hope to explain why a particular person might scrub their hands raw rather than compulsively locking doors, or a diagnosis of schizophrenia can explain why a person believes they have magical powers that control the weather rather than believing the NSA is stalking their every move. The differences have their genesis outside a person’s brain chemistry, in their society, their upbringing, their present situations, the elements of their obsessions that are permitted space to grow unchecked.

The specifics of madness are not so closely linked to diagnoses as most people would like to believe. One cannot simply write off all delusions as madness, nor all violence, nor even all shooting sprees, because madness is not a sufficient explanation. Even if we know for certain that a shooter is diagnosed as mentally ill, what we do not necessarily know – and what we must ask – is why their illness has taken that particular form. Why women? Why people of colour? Why sex? Why entitlement?

Madness is born in sanity. It is born from society. It does not spring, fully formed, from the brain in isolation: it is defined socially, it is constructed socially, it is through the establishment of social norms that abnormality is recognised and regulated. Mental illnesses grow like weeds; the nature of the weed is dependent on the soil, the light, the water. Sometimes the only thing that makes a weed a weed is the fact it is appearing in a neatly manicured bed of some other flower.

The California killer’s mental illness was not madness, when it was limited to posting on forums about how much he hated women. It was not madness when he spoke online about his fantasies. It was not madness when he suggested women deserved to die for rejecting him. If he had only killed one woman, an ex-girlfriend or a prospective partner who said no, a great deal of evidence suggests it would still not be judged as madness; this happens every day, and society rarely says it is insane.

Sanity and insanity are two ends of a spectrum, not distinct states, and there is a great deal in the middle that is murky. It is frightening that such hatred, such aggression towards women, such entitlement and anger, is only murky.

Why does society call angry, threatening young misogynists mad only after they have pulled the trigger?