Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Just do a quick double check

Warning: This post features a long discussion about suicide/suicidal thoughts/suicide attempts.

I'm kind of in love with Tumblr right now. It's a fun site, and I like that there's lots of silly pictures from things I love.

But it's also brought to the forefront my frustration with people repeating and proliferating lies, or stories without citations or any reason to believe they are true.

Sometimes, it's something ridiculous and silly. An image of Sigourney Weaver landing a nearly impossible basketball throw in an Alien movie is captioned that it wasn't a special effect, she really made the shot, on her first try.

A lot of things about that seem too good to be true, and in this case I knew that she actually made the shot but that it hadn't been on her first try. The kicker though? The actual cited source for the image, the video the image is actually TAKEN FROM, starts out with a slate. The slate clearly reads take four.

The evidence that the caption was wrong is RIGHT THERE. And yet tens of thousands of people have reblogged the image and caption, and probably now are convinced this is the gospel truth and will repeat it to others.

Oh well, another one for the heaps of fake on set information in the history books.

But sometimes, the errors are actually kind of dangerous. In another hugely popular post, a person posts that "a journalist" interviewed every person who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. The post continues that every single person, all of them, with no exceptions (they're very clear on this) realized after they jumped that all of their problems could be solved except for the fact that they just jumped.

Maybe the intention of this post is good. But there is almost nothing about it that's actually true.

A journalist did talk to a lot of people who attempted suicide and survived. Including several people who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm having trouble finding the article again now, but I've read it. It's a very poignant and moving read. But the conclusions are not nearly so simple and uplifting as "everybody realized they could solve their problems."

At least one person who survived jumping returned to jump again. The quote about realizing everything was solvable is actually attributed to only one survivor. Others had different things to say, different experiences, and different reactions. You know, because they are human beings.

The conclusion that the article reaches is actually layered. First, they show that a suicide barrier on a bridge or popular suicide spot will drastically reduce suicides OVERALL. Opponents of suicide barriers on the Golden Gate frequently say that people will just "go somewhere else" or "do something else." But they won't, and there's a variety of ways that's been proven.

Second, they show that there are different types of suicide attempts and that the people who attempt different methods actually can be categorized, somewhat. Obviously there's nothing that's always 100% (part of what made the original post a red flag, the use of "every") but in general certain methods are favored by people who become suicidal on an impulse, rather than a long standing and deeply rooted issue.

That's vastly oversimplifying, but the theory is basically that some people (SOME) are actually suffering from an impulse control issue, and that by making it more difficult for them to satisfy that impulse (via a barrier for example) then you actually give them the time to think it over and get past the point of the impulse. Those people, when they survive, are rarely again faced with the same situation. They don't attempt multiple times.

Others have suicidal thoughts coming from a very different place, a place where it becomes a planned and premeditated act. Those people are much more difficult to save, and the article didn't really get into that because it wasn't what they were really talking about. But they did point out that basically no one who fits that category would say that the moment they felt they were going to die, their problems could be solved.

There's real harm that is perpetuated by repeating this false story. First, because it misrepresents the authors actual intent and their conclusions. Second, because it equates mental illness to a "problem" that you can just "solve" or "get over." Mental illness is a medical condition that needs medical treatment of some kind. It's not just a silly little problem, any more than cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's is just a "problem." You can't just solve it or get over it, any more than a person with MS can just think positively and be well again. The myth that mental illness is just a state of mind that can be controlled is literally killing people, and ruining lives in America every day. And even by trying to help them with this quote, you're contributing to that.

Lastly, imagine a person who has attempted suicide multiple times. Who has never felt this moment of epiphany that supposedly "everyone" has. What exactly is the message they're going to get from this quote? They won't find it uplifting or helpful or nice or kind or anything. They'll see it as another sign that they aren't doing something right, that if they were "normal" they wouldn't feel this way because "everybody" feels that way.

So really, the long and short of this is simple: check your source before you just start spreading information around. If something uses a generalization, LOOK IT UP. Anything that uses words like "always," "every," and "none" should be suspect. Over Independence Day, a picture circulated with a story that the real Statue of Liberty was meant to be black because it was supposed to be about slavery. That was completely false on every level, and yet people were latching onto it and saying "UGH! Americans and their RACISM." Listen, Americans can be pretty racist and our history is full of it, you really don't need to make something up, just look at Woodrow Wilson and get back to me.

Don't believe everything you read, be a smart media consumer. Learn how to look up corroborating articles and read the cited sources. Don't be lazy, learning and reading is fun anyway! And you'll learn even more new awesome things!