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When work and life collide: Reporting on an emotionally-charged story at an emotionally-charged time

When work and life collide: Reporting on an emotionally-charged story at an emotionally-charged time

Picture of Jennifer Biddle

One of my happiest moments was when I received the fellowship from the Center for Health Journalism to produce a video series on a heartbreaking topic: teen suicide. It was an honor and something I hoped could help people struggling with mental illness and suicide. But I also knew the biggest challenge would be overcoming the uneasy tension I felt between the excitement and reality of such a complex and emotional subject. 

I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area where teen suicide has been in the headlines over the past year. Five teenagers in Palo Alto, CA have killed themselves, the latest suicide occurring Friday night. Just as distressing has been the manner of death: All of these bright, young lives ended at the same railroad crossing in town where they threw their bodies in front of a commuter Amtrak train. What would drive these kids from this wealthy community - young people who seemed to have it all - to die so determinedly? And why so many of them all at once? These would be the questions I'd pick away at in my project.

I was drawn to the topic initially because I thought I knew part of the answer. I grew up in Saratoga, CA, a mere 20 minutes South of Palo Alto by car, in a similarly affluent and educated community. My brother Richard was a straight-A student, track star, and had been his high school's Valedictorian when he went off to study computer science at Cal.

At Cal, Richard had a complete mental breakdown on his 21st birthday. After wandering around Berkeley thinking he was Jesus Christ, he was locked up in a dark, concrete isolation room at Herrick Hospital, completely insane and terrified. My brother would be diagnosed with bipolar, then bipolar and schizoaffective disorders, and eventually with schizoaffective disorder-bipolar type. That year, and in the years that followed, I learned my brother had a treatable illness that carried with it a huge social stigma. And I knew for him, coping with the stigma was one of the hardest parts of coping with the illness.

For my fellowship video project, I interviewed the mother of a Berkeley teenager who committed suicide in 2005. She talked at length about how her son, like all teenagers, just wanted to fit in, to be normal. And normal to her son Gulliver meant not having to take medication for a mental illness. At the end of our interview she said that Gulliver didn't die by suicide but that he died "by mental illness."

What this mother didn't know as I gently pressed her for details about her son's ordeal, was that my brother, now 42, was in the hospital suffering from severe depression and hallucinations. My brother had menacing, paranoid visions about me this time, which was a first. As my interview subject speculated about what life may have been like for Gulliver had he not killed himself, I felt fairly certain I knew.

Gulliver's mother seemed to know, too.

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