THE BLOG
02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Suicide Contagion: Will Madoff Investor's 'Act of Honor' Be the Last?

Can suicide be an honorable thing?

Last week Bloomberg News published a story titled "Madoff Investor's Suicide Was an 'Act of Honor,' Brother Says." Shortly thereafter, The Huffington Post featured a link to the article without comment.

I work in the field of suicide prevention, and something struck me about this piece: although Bertrand Magon de la Villehuchet's response to his brother's suicide is noteworthy, Bloomberg and HuffPo didn't refute -- or at least balance -- the skewed logic of suicide as a means to honor.

Isn't it worth noting that, on top of the family's financial loss, perhaps losing a family member was the worst blow of all? And what does the rest of Villehuchet's family think of this statement? It's a provocative stance (hence the headline), but the article itself ignores any controversy.

This is literally dangerous. Praising a suicide as honorable may come with an extremely high price: namely, more suicides. News organizations have a duty to temper such judgments -- not to censor them, but to put them in context. My concern is pragmatic. If we want to prevent suicide, we need to start speaking and writing about these things with greater social consciousness.

I don't mean to cast blame. Only one person should be held accountable for a suicide. Nonetheless, we can do a lot more to advance our understanding of this issue, and in doing so save lives.

There are plenty of resources. Most fittingly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta published a series of guidelines for reporters and public officials who address a suicide. It's a brief, constructive dos-and-don'ts list on how to avoid language that may lead to suicide contagion. Furthermore, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a wonderful "About" page, full of information and additional resources.

Two realities are worth noting:

1) Suicide, though often characterized as the result of some life event, is nearly always caused by an underlying mental disorder. This is not to say that suicide is evidence of illness. 90-95% of those who kill themselves exhibit clear and commons signs of mental illness well before their lives end. Certain tragedies (like the Madoff fraud) may trigger an acute depression, which can lead to suicide, but nearly all victims of suicide have a predisposition to illness, often well documented by family and friends. And mental illness is treatable.

2) Our misconceptions about mental illness -- adding to the stigma and shame that so many sufferers face on top of despair -- can be a very heavy burden during an especially precarious time. We, the "sane" ones, can do more to lighten this load simply by educating ourselves.

To quote Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, who always puts it best: "Suicide is a pervasive, not-uncommon, major threat to the public health. It's discussed way too infrequently. It's one of the more common causes of death -- and, certainly among young people, one of the most common causes of death. It's a huge problem."

I hope to keep the discussion alive.