Writing about suicide

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf: ‘One day she is “sunk fathoms deep”, another trying to keep afloat in a “great lake of melancholy”.’ Photograph: EO Hoppé/Corbis

In J-school (I graduated from the UWO Masters program in Journalism) we spent a few lectures on covering suicides. It was one of those subjects that caused a lot of discussion inside the classroom and even more so after we left it. The basic question of how seriously to take the idea that covering a suicide gave the public the idea that they too could do ‘it,’ was one that continued to be debated in the various newsrooms I was hired in to.

I am cognizant of that [essentially] unanswered question as I start writing this latest casebook for Portia Adams. I am in no way ‘covering’ a suicide since this is fiction, but the basics of the case Portia is working on revolves around suicide and more specifically, a critical look at the psychological profile of a suicidal person.

An article from the Poynter Institute written a decade ago remains one of the best on the subject if you are interested in reading more, but this is the quote that I always keep in mind when this subject comes up (which thank fully, is not that often, but still happens more than it should):

Mental illness is almost always present in a case of suicide. To report on suicide without discussing the role of mental illness is like reporting on a tornado without mentioning the underlying weather conditions. Tornados don’t whip up out of nowhere, and neither does suicide.

Seeing as Portia suffers from some form of bipolar disorder as I suspect her grandfather did, this seems like a case I can use to delve into some of her issues.

Just because context helps when writing, Statistics Canada and Health Canada obviously follow this subject very closely, and their latest numbers are:

Suicide is a major cause of premature and preventable death. It is estimated, that in 2009 alone, there were about 100,000 years of potential life lost to Canadians under the age of 75 as a result of suicides.

Research shows that mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; and that more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.1,2 Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60% suffering from this condition.

Obviously one of my next steps is to do some research on suicide rates in London in the 1930s and what kind of stigma was attached to mental illness at the time. Also, I will need to know what kind of support people had from their medical community.

By the 1930s, Europe had dropped well into the Great Depression and therefore training for medical staff would have been harder to come by, and the support for institutions would have also dried up as money was refocused on the majority of the public who needed basic survival aid.

If anyone has suggestions on articles or contacts please let me know in the comments below? Thanks!


  1. I’m taking an abnormal psychology course right now, and I can tell you, the main populace wasn’t very supportive of the mentally ill, treating them like we treat repeat criminals today (funnily enough, they treated repeat criminals like we treat the mentally ill today). I also recommend checking out the history of Bethlehem hospital in London, or as it was known to the population at large “Bedlam.”

  2. Excellent article! You ask for insight from the 30’s. I’ll share a personal anecdote. I learned in my fifties about my paternal grandfather’s commitment to an insane asylum. I learned it by finding personal papers of my mother’s that referenced the event. My mother had them stashed away. Never in my entire lifetime had my mother told that story to me. Instead she had painted a picture for me of a talented man who was ahead of his time. From the same stash of papers, I learned my grandfather physically abused my grandmother. The societal code of the time was silence about anything untoward, especially if the family had any social prominence. So much so that long after my grandfather was dead, long after I was a married adult and mother, my mother never mentioned the dark side or mental illness of my grandfather. I learned about it after my mother left her home and I was cleaning out the place.

    • What an amazing find, and I am so grateful that you shared it with us in the comments – wow. That must have been a very emotional moment for you, reading through the personal papers like that. Did you talk to your mother about it?

      • No. I talked to my sister, to whose home Mom moved. They talked a bit, but Mom was still pretty tight-lipped. It was the same with my father talking about serving in WWII: he said he didn’t want to talk about it and wouldn’t. I think that kind of privacy and secrecy was common for that generation.

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