A crisis in Blue Heaven

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By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Screenshot of Twitter post about UNC Chapel HillAs I’m sure you know, there have been four suicide attempts, three ending in death, at UNC-Chapel Hill in five weeks. Two of those attempts came last weekend.

As on campuses everywhere, the usual pressures for young adults — a new environment, the stress of sudden independence and a lack of structure, the end of relationships, academic missteps, financial worries, changes in sleep and diet, substance challenges — have been compounded by a pandemic, remote learning, reckonings around race and identity, and more. There’s a mental health crisis in Blue Heaven.  

UNC canceled Tuesday classes and called for a wellness day. 

And the students on the staff of The Daily Tar Heel, in addition to living all of those stresses every day, have had to report on their sometimes tragic effects. On Sunday, the DTH announced it would operate on a reduced schedule this week “to allow our staff time to rest and to prioritize their mental health.”

For that very reason, I didn’t want to intrude — but I did reach out to Editor-In-Chief Praveena Somasundaram and General Manager Courtney Mitchell to express support, and I asked about the core principles in the DTH coverage of the human tragedies. I’m beyond grateful for the grace they showed me. Here’s what Somasundaram told me, by email:

“The two biggest principles we’ve tried to guide ourselves with: 1) report only the information we know, with sensitivity in how we say it; and 2) include content warnings and resources in every article/online post related to events of the weekend. These two rules helped us make sure we were providing information and being a resource to the communities we serve, especially because the first email the University sent acknowledging anything was Sunday around 7 p.m., though the first reports came out midday Saturday.

“We used online resources available about reporting on suicide, such as this guide. There have also been former editors and journalism professors who’ve made themselves available to answer questions we’ve had, which has been a huge help.

“Moving forward, we’re hoping to expand on this coverage to help start more conversations about the University’s handling of these events and how mental health is talked about and addressed on this campus. There is a lot that needs to be done, and we as a news organization hope to continue providing crucial information to our readers.”

You can read the DTH coverage here.

It’s a painful truth, but what has happened at UNC is not so rare…

That fall and winter in Boone

In five months, from September 2014 through January 2015, nine students at Appalachian State University died — and three of them died by suicide. The first of those three was Anna Smith, who disappeared the day after Labor Day and was missing for 11 days before her body was found near campus.

I asked some of the people who were involved in covering those bleak days for the student newsroom, The Appalachian, about the experience — and whether they had any lessons to share.

Laney Ruckstuhl, now a digital producer at WBUR public radio in Boston, was in her first year at Appalachian that fall, and she reported some of the Anna Smith story. Here’s some of what she shared:

“I had very little experience with the topic, let alone in journalism, and it was definitely kind of figuring it out as we went, and I think we got better as we went along and kind of learned how to be more sensitive.

“Having such a personal connection to the stories that you tell, it’s kind of common when you’re working for a college paper because campuses are only so large, because you’re so close to a lot of students. So I think those things can kind of amplify certain feelings for a lot of people. I just remember it being really tense and really hard, and we would kind of band together.”

(Indeed, the last person who died by suicide that fall was someone Ruckstuhl knew.)

“That made it hit home even closer, and I ended up just stepping off of coverage for that one. And having the support of the rest of the newsroom and the advisors, to be able to do that and to be able to say, ‘I can’t handle this, and I need somebody else to step in,’ was really important. And I think we all kind of tried to do that for each other.

“I think the biggest lesson I learned was, make sure that you do not report anything before you have the confirmed details. When Smith’s body was found, the local paper had, I guess, some kind of inside police source, and so they were able to report it before the police actually confirmed it to the public. I just felt like, out of respect for the family and for the other people involved, it’s really important to make sure that you know the facts before you put something out there … Including resources is really important, and trigger warnings if they’re appropriate, in the form of an editor’s note at the top of the story. And then, I think, doing the follow-ups. It’s really important to look at underlying issues. We looked at how the administration was releasing information and when, and then we took a deeper look at our campus health services, and we found that they were kind of lacking the necessary mental health resources for students — there weren’t enough people they could go see when they needed help. Trying to make sure that students know how to get help is really important.”

Michael Bragg, now communications director at the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina, was the enterprise editor at The Appalachian in the spring semester that year — a position created to allow him to do long-form reporting when he returned from a fall 2014 internship in Washington, D.C. He had been the EIC the previous year. He wrote a thoughtful, broad piece about how the university remembers the students who die, how it reacts to crises, how students encounter challenges and how they can get help, in February 2015:

“A piece like this had to be done very carefully, gracefully, considerately, thoughtfully, you know, just making sure that this was a very sensitive subject and approaching it as such but also making sure that we didn’t back away from any hard truths.

“When you’re doing this kind of story, some of the folks you may be talking to, depending on the level of access you get, who’s willing to talk — some of them may be talking to you on one of the worst days of their life. So just always be considerate and thoughtful.

“And the other thing is, take care of yourself. Do the work as you can but also know that you need to take care of yourself and reach out for help if you need it.

“And I would say make no assumptions because, as you know, a lot of times (law enforcement) will say, you know, there was no foul play suspected, but an ‘unattended death, no danger to the community’ can be a slew of things.”

Allison Bennett Dyche, adviser to the Appalachian, was in her first tour in that job in 2014-2015, before a four-year sojourn at Virginia Commonwealth University:

“I was only in my second year here … I’d moved here from Savannah, Georgia, so the weather was a little bit of a shock to me, you know, but it can get a little bit dreary in Boone, in the mountains, especially starting the fall semester into winter … There was definitely a cloud hanging over the university.

“We had a lot of younger students … learning how to be journalists and then having to go out and cover stories like this and, you know, figure out how to process it.

“One thing that the students here did last spring, and this of course wasn’t related to suicide coverage— this was just COVID stress — but they started working on sort of a cycle basis, where each editor would take a day off, and they would have somebody else cover for that editor. I think that really took a lot of the pressure off the students.

“When you need to find people to help you out, and whatever those methods are — whether it’s a day off or doing some sort of group dinner or going to training to, you know, work through those issues — I think you do whatever works best, but recognizing when you need to start processing what you’re feeling and not compartmentalize quite so much is really, really important.”

Moss Brennan, now editor of the Watauga Democrat, told me that four years later, in 2019, he reported “one of the hardest pieces I’ve had to write” at The Appalachian after three students died in the spring semester. It’s an exemplary package, on communication, student resources, the toll on other students, lessons learned and ways forward. 

Other voices

Kevin Smith, who leads marketing and communications for North Carolina Education Corps, was PIO of the Transylvania County Schools for about seven years until the end of this August. In his very final days at TCS, two students died by suicide. He also has a daughter who’s a sophomore at UNC-CH. I talked with him Tuesday, and he shared some advice for journalists:

“Have empathy. Be aware that you’re walking into a situation where a lot is unknown. And it often takes a good amount of time for it to unfold… understanding that you have a job to do, but respecting that everybody else also has a job to do, and much of that has to do with protecting the privacy and well-being of students and their families. 

“Every single person who is within reaching distance of that child is asking themselves: ‘What could we have done differently?’ And so, if you stay aware of that as a reporter, ask about the things that the school is doing, as part of their culture … ask about community resources. 

“And don’t be afraid to ask people how they’re doing. That won’t go unappreciated. 

“Be absolutely candid, and exercise the highest ethics around putting people on the record versus letting them share background information. I think that if there’s a moment where everyone deserves the highest professional respect … it’s really, really critical at that moment.”

(Smith then stressed a final point: Don’t mention getting “back to normal.”)

“Everyone knows you want to get back to normal. But the reality is … everyone in the community knows that things don’t go back to the old normal. You reset. It’s different.”

Paige Masten, a member of McClatchy’s North Carolina opinion team and last year’s DTH opinion editor, who tweeted some truth on Sunday, told me that journalists should be “using language such as ‘died by suicide’ rather than ‘committed suicide,’ using content warnings on tweets and articles, including links to resources so people can seek help if they need it,” and “using person-centered language,” which places more importance on people than on the rules of language or style. (For example: “she has bipolar disorder” instead of “she is bipolar”).

◼️  You are worth something. By UNC faculty chair Mimi Chapman on her Sympathetic Ink blog.

◼️  U.S. youth crisis goes way beyond Instagram. By Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

A few more good practices, and some resources

◼️ Recommendations – Reporting on Suicide is a collection of best practices compiled by suicide prevention experts, journalists, schools of journalism and media organizations.

◼️ Make it easy for your audience to find essential resources — as The DTH did here; as Leah Boyd, EIC of The Chronicle at Duke, did in this thread; as Kimberly Cataudella of The News & Observer did here; and as Sara Pequeño of the McClatchy newsrooms, a UNC grad, did in this thread.

◼️ Strategies for helping your burned-out, stressed and traumatized students. By Barbara Allen, Poynter.

◼️ POSTVENTION: A Guide for Response to Suicide on College Campuses. A Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) Project.

By all means, use those resources and words of hard-won wisdom. But if you’re mindful of these key practices, the right decisions will come:

 

  • Remember our shared humanity.
  • Report only what you know, and be open about how you know it.
  • Tell readers how they can get help.
  • Come back to the underlying systemic stories.
  • Step away when you need to, and respect your colleagues’ need to do so.

 

One more thing …

As Kevin Smith told me, it’s crucial for people “to feel connected, and (to know) there’s at least one person they can trust. That may be all it takes.” Be that person.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text STRENGTH to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.