Seeking answers but not retribution on subject of suicide


THE IRISH Times’spurpose in featuring the story of Kate Fitzgerald’s life was to help people get a better understanding of suicide and depression.

We have a long-standing policy of encouraging a more open approach within society to the reality of suicide and of providing a forum for debate about it and related issues.

We have sought to be supportive of Tom and Sally Fitzgerald after the tragic death of their daughter earlier this year. Our shared objective has been to tell her story and to highlight the need for people who are depressed to talk about it and to seek support.

Kate Fitzgerald wrote a personal opinion piece in The Irish Times(September 9th) outlining her efforts to deal with depression; to find the answer on mental illness, “if you ask the right question”. The piece, published anonymously with a note at the bottom saying that the identity of the author was known to the editor, was also a plea for the right kind of supports for people like her, whether among friends, in the workplace or in greater society.

Tom Fitzgerald subsequently rang the newspaper and confirmed the author of the piece was in all probability his daughter and that she had taken her own life between it having been submitted and published.

Then Opinion editor and now foreign editor, Peter Murtagh, who had been in communication with Kate prior to its publication, felt the Fitzgeralds’ terrible turmoil when he met them: “A cascade of raw emotion, love, memories, loss and some anger followed. But with all of those, there was also a feeling that Kate’s life story, and her many achievements, should not be swamped by bewilderment at her death, the manner of it, and that her plea for greater understanding of depression should be heard”.

His piece (Weekend Review, November 26th) on the life of Kate Fitzgerald was immensely empowering in that it gave a great many of our readers a message of hope out of terrible adversity – and unquestionably provided an invaluable insight into how so many wrestle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Above all, the searing honesty, bravery in wishing to speak out about suicide and love of Kate, articulated by the Fitzgeralds, shone out from the page; a seeking of answers without the seeking of retribution.

The benefit is reinforced by the view of psychologist Tony Bates, director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, who believes we have to develop the language for talking about suicide and depression, the most common mental health problem worldwide. “And the evidence seems to indicate that it is on the rise globally. It has something to teach all of us about the way we live our lives and relate to one another,” he noted in The Irish Times HEALTHPlussupplement on the issue of “facing up to distress”.

The Irish Timessets high ethical standards for itself with a commitment to fairness. Sometimes they are not met, as some have contended in our coverage of this case. These are demanding requirements. Sometimes it’s a delicate weighing of often conflicting facts and details, when the full picture has yet to emerge.

That is what we attempted to do in this case. Suicide is such a difficult, complex subject; when someone chooses to take their own life with devastating consequences for their family, friends and colleagues. Coverage of suicide issues frequently provokes intense emotions and contention.

After publication of the piece on Kate’s life some further details of her final months emerged. This led to an Irish Timesdecision to edit the initial piece and to publish a clarification in Saturday’s editions. In my view, this was necessary in the context of fairness and it does not undermine in any way Kate’s life and the story told by her family, including her brother William.

As is standard practice, an edit note was appended to the revised online version of the article. Following some queries from readers, this note was further clarified to indicate the date of the revision and the reason it had been carried out.

Last year, The Irish Timespublished a major “Stories of Suicide” series by Carl O’Brien. His opening sentences encapsulated how “suicide is a convergence of troubled strands . . . where there are always unanswered, or unanswerable, questions. Could the death have been avoided? Were there sufficient warning signs that a person was going to take his or her own life? What could possibly drive a person to feel life is so unbearable that they would want to leave it?”

The series helped set free so many voices on the issue of depression and suicide across all strands of Irish society; notably of those with depression – who succumbed to it on a once-off basis or face it in a recurring way. Their families too were grateful for being part of the conversation, including some grieving after the loss of a loved one. I hope that coverage by The Irish Timesof Kate Fitzgerald’s life and premature death will have a similar beneficial effect.