Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Suicide and the blame game

The media frenzy, the blame game, the breast-beating, the outpouring of sympathy and the if-onlys that followed turned out to be more surreal than the suicide itself.

Everybody and everybody had something to say about 12-year-old Marianette Amper of Davao City, about her diary, her family’s poverty, her dreams and dashed hopes. And how she ended it all with a rope. So young and so despairing.

Someone’s got to take the blame--was the undying refrain, the knee-jerk reaction of many. And why not. Manette’s lot in life was indeed something for the yagit telenovelas and bleeding-heart movies that truly resonate with many Filipinos, both poor and not so poor.

But suicide, as psychotherapists would tell us, is not as simple as cause and effect or this equals that. Not everyone who goes through what Manette had gone through, not everyone whose life is more difficult that hers would want to end his or her life.

But why--is the question most people ask of the most unlikely suicides. While in the case of Manette, the most likely remark most people would say was, but why not. Or, but of course. She was poor, though not the poorest. But it is not as simple as that.

There was this pop song that became a hit among the young more than a decade ago, and it was about suicide being painless. ``Suicide is painless,’’ it says, ``it brings on many changes.’’ When I quoted this line some years ago (after the death of a son of a senator) I was surprised to get a barrage of emails from readers who supplied the rest of the lyrics.

In the case of Manette, her passing brought on many reactions and actions that could translate into meaningful changes. I hope there are no more Manettes out there who would resort to suicide to bring on changes. A psychotherapist I know well who will be probing deeper into this case told me that “there are many factors that combine and interact and we have to know how they work together. Then we can find ways to prevent it and also prevent other children from imitating.”

The book ``Survivors of Suicide’’ by Rita Robinson, an award-winning journalist specializing in health and psychology, is a good book on the subject. Robinson’s book draws from the experiences of the survivors and the bereaved as well as those of the scientific experts, therapists and law enforcers. The first chapters describe the impact, shock, grief and guilt of the surviving next of kin.

Robinson lists 17 suicide myths, the wrong beliefs about suicide. Some of them are: that people who threaten to kill themselves don’t really mean it, that there is no forewarning, that one shouldn’t confront the person who is suicidal, that those who commit suicide are insane, that suicidal people want nothing more than to die, that it runs in families, that religious people are less likely to commit suicide.

Who commits suicide? How does clinical depression lead to suicide, how does the brain react to depression? Getting help is very important.

The blame game is tackled too. It is tough for those who are mentioned in suicide notes, especially if they are young. Although it is natural to blame someone, it is important for survivors not to place or accept blame.

The book gives historical perspectives and discusses ancient attitudes, the attempts to unlock the mystery of suicide and the role of societies in suicide. Perspectives from the great religious traditions are examined as well. And finally, how to prevent suicides, the role of guns, warning signs, etc.

But the most interesting, the stuff that hold the reader (as Robinson, the journalist, would know) are the true-to-life cases, the testimonies of those who’ve had to go through the tragedy and, in the case of suicidals, the temptation. Robinson also offers media guidelines and tackles teen suicide.

Health institutions like the Centers for Disease Control have come up with guidelines for schools. Here are some. It is important to stress that suicide is the result of a dysfunctional behavior by a troubled personality. Reduce the identification with the actions of the deceased, and reaffirm that it was the fault (decision) of the person who committed suicide and not someone else. And one very important thing—don’t’ glorify the death or prolong praises and tributes for the diseased. Teenagers could get ideas, you know.

Here are media guidelines from CDC: Reporting should be concise and factual. Excessive or sensational reporting can lead to contagion. (Think of the many suicidal Filipinos who keep using the giant billboards as their launching pad.) Reporting technical aspects of the suicide is not necessary. Suicide should not be presented as an effective coping strategy. Suicide should not be glorified. Expressions of grief such as public eulogies and public memorials should be minimized.

Robinson notes that the World Health Organization reported that in the last 45 years, the suicide rate has increased 60 percent worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death of people aged 15 to 44.

The song ``Vincent’’ is about art genius Vincent van Gogh’s choice to cut short his own stint in this world. It begins with ``Starry, starry night, paint your palette blue and gray,’’ and ends with ``Vincent this world is not meant for those as beautiful as you.’’

It is a masterpiece of eulogy set to music, like Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers and starry nights. But I disagree with its fuga mundi (flight from the world) theme at the end.

Sure, there are lessons to be learned. But let’s not make Manette a hero or martyr-saint. She was a precious 12-year-old kid going through a dark night.