Over the weekend, news made the rounds about a lawyer in New York who burned himself alive in the early hours alone in a park in Brooklyn. The New York Post headline read: “Activist lawyer burned himself to death to protest global warming.” The Post reported,
David Buckel, 60, left behind a charred corpse and a typed suicide note that said he was burning himself to death using “fossil fuel” to reflect how mankind was likewise killing itself, police sources said.
He left the note in a manila envelope marked “To The Police,” recovered from inside a black metal pushcart he discarded at the scene.
“Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result,” Buckel wrote in his note, which he also sent to the New York Times.
“My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
He added, “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.”
To be clear: sane people don’t burn themselves to death alone in public parks, where children will be present. This wasn’t an honorable death to achieve some sort of higher purpose: it was a suicide. Buckel may have wanted his death to serve a higher purpose, but ultimately, it was death he wanted, more than achieving the higher purpose.
Buckel wasn’t a nobody; the Post reported he was “a ‘green’ activist who was a pioneering lawyer for gay and transgender rights — including in the notorious ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ rape-murder case.” His work would have had a great deal more impact than his grisly death, which will likely be forgotten in days by the general public but will be mourned forever by his close friends and family.
The enduring legacy of his death may be that the media portrays one’s death as a martyrdom instead of as a suicide if it’s framed in a certain way. That sends a dangerous message; that sometimes, for some reasons, suicide is justified and venerable; instead of a tragedy for those left behind.
The Buckel case reminded me of another phenomenon about how suicide has been framed by the media under other circumstances. The headlines usually read “Bullied to death.” Here’s one of many examples, where suicide precipitated by bullying is described in the following way: “in a confounding national crisis that many consider nothing short of murder, kids are killing themselves to avoid vicious online torment.” In this framing, suicide is unavoidable, something that has happened passively to someone, instead of a conscious and active choice made with free will.
Bullying is an emotionally scarring event for children and teenagers, and the forms of bullying in the present day are more severe than many previous generations could possibly imagine thanks to cell phones and social media. That does not mean, however, that a bullied child has no other choice than suicide, that someone else has made that decision for them. While this framing may make parents feel better, and it may draw attention to the severity of bullying, it may be ultimately counter-productive; telling children suicide is the only way out, and an eventuality.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has created a guide for journalists covering suicide, and many of their suggestions should be taken into account by those covering the Buckel and bullying suicides. A few of their suggestions:
• More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.
• Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
• Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes,including psychiatric illnesses, that may not have been recognized or treated. However, these illnesses are treatable.
• Refer to research findings that mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90% of people who have died by suicide.
• Avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide.