The media approach following Greg Boyed’s death shows just how much our mental health reporting needs to change, writes TVNZ journalist Jehan Casinader.
Greg Boyed had already left the airwaves, but they were still humming with his presence. In the hours after our colleague’s death, his name echoed through every newsroom, and his face glowed from every homepage. News websites carried tributes. Greg’s workmates shared sweet, funny memories about the man they knew off-camera. And his closest friends explained how hard he’d tried to chase the light: running marathons, playing the drums, and being a great dad.
This should have been enough, but it wasn’t. Greg’s death had become part of the insatiable news cycle. Journalists, paralysed by their own grief and confusion, did what seemed most obvious: delivering more content. Soon, the internet was saturated with tweets and opinion pieces, mostly written by pundits and former TV stars. Many admitted they only knew Greg through a TV screen, but they offered theories about why a black dog may have chased him to his death.
At best, these articles were well-intentioned attempts to process the sudden death of a popular public figure. At worst, they can be described as shameless clickbait – what’s known in our industry as “grief porn”. This should worry us, not least because it’s undignified. It should worry us because this kind of reporting can put lives at risk, and contribute to the damning mental health statistics that we so often lament.
Suicide was a mystery to me until I was 16. That summer, a classmate killed himself during the school holidays. I don’t remember what was said at his funeral, but I remember hearing The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake pumping through the church speakers. Staring at his casket, it all seemed so wrong. I wanted to make sense of his death. But as anyone who has faced the aftermath of a suicide knows, it’s impossible to make sense of an act that extinguishes life itself.
I started reporting on suicide in 2006, with a pretty dry piece in the Weekend Herald. Back then, a crisis was already in the making. New Zealand had the highest suicide rate in the OECD for young males. A failed youth suicide strategy, launched in 1998, was gathering dust in Wellington. I discovered a huge ideological gulf between academics – who were worried that speaking about suicide would cause more of it – and policymakers, who couldn’t work out how to stop people from killing themselves if the boffins wouldn’t let them talk about it.
No one won that debate. But in the 12 years since, the curtain has lifted on this taboo topic. Mental health has gone mainstream. We hear a lot about why we must “start a conversation”, “break the silence” and get people to “ask for help”. There are plenty of powerful stories around. But some of this reporting is doing more harm than good.
Under the Coroners’ Act, Greg’s death can lawfully be described as a “suspected suicide”. But the coverage of his death broke many of the guidelines developed by the Ministry of Health with input from media. These guidelines strongly advise journalists to “avoid language, images or presentation that glorify” a subject, “avoid sensationalism”, and “avoid encouraging over-simplification of a death”. The Mental Health Foundation’s advice was also ignored by many outlets. It says media should “reduce the prominence [of a death]” and “not put it on the front page, on a website splash, or as the leading item of a news bulletin”. The Herald continued sending breaking news alerts about Greg on the third day after his death.
Greg was loved and respected. His death was newsworthy and should have been acknowledged – as it was by TVNZ. But the public’s reaction would have been muted if the rest of the media’s coverage hadn’t been so intense and unrelenting. I’m aware that these stories triggered flashbacks for people who have been affected by suicide. As Jess McAllen helpfully points out, citing ample international evidence: “It is a proven fact that vulnerable people who are experiencing mental distress can be negatively impacted by constant, sensational suicide coverage.”
I know how tricky it is to navigate these issues. I’ve reported many stories about mental health – including a Sunday piece last year, in which the Government’s mental health boss couldn’t even remember the suicide rate. Other journalists, like Tess McClure at VICE, have covered complex mental health issues with precision and restraint. On Newstalk ZB, The Nutters Club team has consistently given a voice to the voiceless.
Most journalists are decent people who want to make a difference. Each time we publish a mental health story, we feel like we’ve won a small battle. But as a country, we’re losing the war. On Friday, we learnt that our suicide rate has hit a 20-year high. We must consider whether our reporting is affecting that rate.
As Mike King says: “The key to life is hope”. But it’s hard for people to feel hopeful if they’re overwhelmed by other people’s tragedies. In the same way that doctors, cops and paramedics experience “compassion fatigue”, I reckon news consumers do, too. Our readers and viewers feel exhaustion, angst and confusion – from being exposed to so much of other people’s pain.
As someone who has experienced depression and had two years of therapy, I found last week tough. Reading news articles about Greg was unhelpful. Social media made me feel worse. So what did help? Having real-life conversations with my colleagues. Focusing on meaningful work. Going for a run. Having a bath. Staring out the window of a plane. Not drinking alcohol. Having a cry in a hotel room while eating a $7.00 can of Pringles. Laughing. Texting friends who live in other cities. Watching Harry Potter. Saying no to things I didn’t want to do. Taking cool photos on my phone. Drinking coffee. Breathing properly. And spending time with my family and my best mate.
There’s a name for this stuff: “self care”. It’s not rocket science, but it can be hard to put into practice because it seems way too simple. Doing these things won’t magically take away your problems, but they make it easier to let negative thoughts pass – putting you in a stronger position to survive your lowest ebbs. The media have the ability to teach people these skills. We can empower them, not only to ask for help, but also to help themselves – and those around them.
That was the idea behind The Inside Word, a series I produced with support from The Mental Health Foundation. Over six episodes, we heard from 18 inspirational Kiwis who had been to hell and back. Alcoholism, cyberbullying, eating disorders – the lot. I wanted to know: how did they survive their darkest moments? What decisions did they make? Who did they reach out to? And what gave them hope?
Jazz Thornton told us how she wrote a letter to her suicidal self. Hayley Holt explained how she gave up drinking – and what she replaced it with. Teuila Blakely revealed how she survived suicidal thoughts while she was a lonely teen mum, and why she fought for the life she wanted. By the end of the series, our hardened, cynical camera operators were whispering to me in the darkness of the studio about their own challenges. They were so encouraged by what they’re heard.
Almost all of us have the ability to overcome mental distress. But for a few people, even if they ask for help, get help and make all the right choices, their illness may gain the upper hand. Greg Boyed’s death reminds us of that.
Let’s not push mental health back into the shadows. Instead, let’s think smarter and more creatively about how we cover it. We should minimise our coverage of high-profile deaths. We should report more comprehensively on the many social issues that contribute to mental distress, like childhood trauma, sexual abuse, loneliness, conflict and poverty, to name just a few examples.
As storytellers, we can help people understand that there is a way through tough times. Not just by writing columns and imploring people to ring 0800 helplines – but by creating content that gives them inspiration, tools and strategies to enhance their wellbeing. We can do all of this while protecting our journalistic values, holding mental health bosses to account, and telling the truth. We just need to be brave enough to point our audiences to hope – rather than heartache.
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