When someone takes their own life, the toughest question for those left behind is always 'why?' It's understandable perhaps then that almost every recent high-profile suicide case has featured a scapegoat who – if reports can be believed – "pushed" the dead person over the edge.
The family left behind and the media both collude in this: for the media the notion brings the whole thing closer to a homicide and is much sexier to report upon; for the family it lends some sense to a senseless act – and unites them against a common enemy. These enemies have ranged from internet trolls, to irate constituents, to workplaces who put too much pressure on their employees, and even to a radio-show prank. In each case the complex riddle of suicide is reduced to an easy one-word answer.
In the weeks after the initial reports on a suicide, the story usually changes. Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse in England who was tricked into believing that a phone call to the hospital she worked in came from the Queen enquiring about Kate Middleton's health didn't, as most of us suspected, "die of shame" (as one of her relatives put it) at being the victim of a tasteless prank. She had already tried to take her own life twice in the months before she took the call from those Australian radio hosts. Of course the story was not corrected with quite the same level of front-page gusto because someone's private problems are not as headline-worthy as Kate Middleton.
Cyber bullying has been linked to a spate of teen suicides here in Ireland, and undoubtedly further legislation is needed to tackle it. But ascribing a teenager's desire to end their own life solely to words written on a screen is simplistic. Cyberbullying alone is not going to cause someone to kill themselves.
A recent study of 6,000 teens across a variety of countries linked suicide instead to a "complex combination of mood disorders such as depression and behavioural problems". "Cyberbullying is a factor in some suicides, but almost always there are other factors such as mental illness or face-to-face bullying," said study author John C LeBlanc. Yet still we rush to find a culprit.
I've been part of this problem myself. In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Massachusetts where I met with members of the extended family of Phoebe Prince. Phoebe was the schoolgirl from Co Clare who had taken her own life after a sustained bullying campaign at her new school in Massachusetts, where she had recently moved with her mother and sister. The case made international headlines because, unusually, the state prosecutor had decided to charge six of Prince's classmates with a number of offences, ranging from violations of her civil rights to statutory rape. Prince, we all agreed, had been "bullied to death".
But on that hot night in Massachusetts, we heard another story from Phoebe's extended family. In fact she had been on medication for depression before she even met some of the bullies who were being charged over her death, they told us. She had recently endured great family upheaval, having moved from Ireland, leaving her father behind in Clare. And perhaps most importantly she had already attempted suicide before the bullying became serious.
None of this made the case any less tragic. None of it exculpated the bullies, who had undoubtedly made Phoebe's life miserable and deserved much of the public opprobrium heaped on them. But the simplistic narrative of villains and victim that the media – me included – and prosecutor had woven wasn't the whole picture.
As we left that night, another journalist said: "I don't even know if it's a story now." He was wrong – Phoebe's case had widespread ramifications and caused a change in the laws in Massachusetts – but in my mind from then on in it was a different kind of story and a much more understandable one. It featured the grey areas and imponderables that you would expect in a case of teen suicide. As with all suicides, the most important witness was not around to explain what really happened. Most of those covering the case belatedly understood that the bullying was not the only factor in Phoebe's decision to end her life.
It's a lesson we'd be as well to remember as more suicide cases make headlines. For most of our country's history suicide was hushed up. We've now swung the other way, and certain cases are reported in almost pornographic detail with the media, family and politicians hypothesising wildly on the true causes of death.
This has to change, because in grabbing the easiest culprit we are failing to understand the true nature of one of our society's greatest scourges.