The suicide taboo: Covering a story no one wants to talk about
As a Senior Producer at CTV, Heather Sherman has tackled a lot of stories that weren't easy to tell. But a recent assignment to do a series on suicide put all her experience to the test, and reminded her why it's important to cover stories no one wants to talk about.
As a Senior Producer at CTV, Heather Sherman has tackled a lot of stories that weren't easy to tell. But a recent assignment to do a series on suicide put all her experience to the test, and reminded her why it's important to cover stories no one wants to talk about.[node:ad]
For media, reporting on mental health and suicide is never easy.
So when CTV’s national morning show, Canada AM, decided to produce a week-long series on the topic, culminating in a live one-hour Town Hall with a studio audience, it was challenging to say the least.
The question facing our production team – how do you engage Canadians on an uncomfortable but important subject and still produce compelling, impactful, truly unique television?
Start by telling their stories.
Approximately 250 Canadians attempt suicide every day. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young Canadians, aged 15-24, after car accidents. I had no idea.
As a Senior Producer, one of my roles in this project was to shoot a behind-the-scenes look at Kids Help Phone – a free and confidential hotline for kids aged 5-20 in imminent or personal crisis.
As a mom of two young children, I admit I was naive. More than 3,500 Canadian children call the hotline each week. Who were these kids? Where were their families?
When I arrived at the downtown office, I got a call from the Communications Coordinator who helped me organize the shoot. She told me that one of our interview subjects – a young woman who had called the hotline several times as a teenager and still kept in touch – had backed out. She was worried about going on national television and telling her story. Totally understandable. But since she was the main subject of my story, I quickly had to re-jig. The counselors would be the focus – a day in the life.
Maria, a bilingual counselor and a mother of two teens herself, has been with Kids Help Phone for 13 years. With a faint French accent, Maria has such an easy-going manner, with a kind smile that I’m sure these kids can feel through the phone.
"Hello, Kids Help Phone. You’ve reached a counselor. How can I help you?"
Within five minutes of interviewing Maria, I wanted to tell her my own problems. I understand why kids feel comfortable confiding in her.
An 11 year-old boy who feels invisible to his family and doesn’t have anyone to talk to. A 14 year-old experiencing a bad break up just after losing a parent to cancer. A 19 year-old with a weapon, just moments from taking his own life. These are some of the stories Kids Help Phone counselors deal with day after day. Can you imagine?
We stay for several hours, interviewing Maria and Caitlin, a relatively new counselor – two years in. I am amazed by their resilience and by their dedication to other peoples’ children, in Maria’s case, for so many years.
Maria and Caitlin agree to be part of the live studio audience on Town Hall day. So many others touched by suicide and mental health do as well.
During the Town Hall, our hashtag #SpeakOutOnSuicide was actually trending on Twitter – a sign of how widespread and pervasive this issue is. Suicide touches everyone.
Sometimes tackling the tough topics does pay off.
Heather Sherman is a Senior Producer with CTV. She has worked in television for more than 15 years, including a 5-year stint at Citytv.