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Media Week: Warning on suicide reportage

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Mental health experts have warned Adelaide’s media against assigning blame for suicide after the death of 13-year-old girl Libby Bell provoked calls to jail adolescent bullies.

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Early this week, news broke that 13-year-old junior surf lifesaver Libby Bell had taken her own life.

The reports said that Bell had been the victim of a series of bullying incidents, online and in person, and suggested she had died by suicide as a result.

Her mother, Crystal, wrote a harrowing post on Facebook paying tribute to her daughter and saying school bullies would be held “accountable”.

She called for tougher laws to imprison serious perpetrators of bullying for up to a decade.

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens told ABC Radio Adelaide on Tuesday morning that it was often difficult to prosecute bullying among children because: “For a police response, we’re looking for substantive offences (… and) if you’re talking about this constant attack of very low level criticisms or sniping … finding that line where we say an offence has been committed can be really hard, really difficult.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Minister for Education and Child Development Susan Close released a statement saying she would not be commenting further on the tragedy.

She said Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services Dr Prue McEvoy had advised that “continued reporting of the child’s death would not be in the interests of other young people affected by this tragic situation”.

But by the following day, the tragedy had entered the political sphere and acquired an unstoppable momentum.

Australian Conservatives SA leader Dennis Hood announced he would introduce new laws, similar to “Brodie’s Law” in Victoria, where serious bullying is punishable by 10 years in jail.

The same day, Xenophon Team South Australian Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore announced a push for a Senate inquiry into the adequacy of cyberbullying laws, “and whether the penalties imposed are appropriate, particularly where children are involved and where the victim has taken their own life”.

The Mindframe National Media Initiative (which publishes detailed, evidence-based guidelines on harm minimisation in mental health reporting) issued a statement Wednesday afternoon warning against simplifying the cause of a death by suicide down to one factor, such as bullying – because studies had shown such reportage increased the risk of further death by suicide within the affected community.

It also warned against giving high prominence in news coverage to reports concerning a death by suicide, against repeatedly using images of the deceased and against attribution of blame for the death.

Each of these elements has appeared in reporting around Bell’s death this week.

Louise Davis, clinical practice manager at telephone crisis support service Kids Helpline, told InDaily she was concerned about the public atmosphere that has developed around Bell’s death, and urged media organisations and public figures against assigning blame.

“It’s absolutely concerns me … because it doesn’t get us anywhere,” she said.

“If we’re blaming people for this young person’s death (… some) may feel frightened about going into the community.”

She said coverage that addressed misconceptions about suicide – such as false notions that that suicidal thoughts are permanent, or that children speak about suicidal feelings in order to seek attention – can help reduce stigma and inform people about mental illness.

But she said attributing blame can cause more harm to those affected by the death of a community member.

Headspace Youth Mental Health Foundation head of clinical practice Vikki Ryall agreed.

“It’s not useful to blame any particular cause, or person, for a suicide,” she said. “There’s never a single factor that leads somebody to take their own life.”

Ryall said it was vital during times of tragedy for the affected community to come together and support each other.

Davis added that victims of bullying, but also perpetrators, need to be supported.

“There are so many reasons why young people go on to bully,” she said.

“When their life is out of control, sometimes they use bullying to take control.

“Sometimes it is hard for other young people to protect (friends from bullying behaviour) because they don’t want to be bullied themselves.”

She argued that: “Incarcerating children isn’t helpful.”

“What we need to do is understand what’s happening for those who are bullying – they need support as well,” she said.

“We aren’t excusing that behaviour (… but it can be) their way of trying to get control … of their lives.

“Unless we understand what’s going on for them, we’re never going to solve the problem.”

If this article has raised issues for you, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.

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