A journalist from Tampa Bay, Florida was the subject of a conversation about ethics in journalism this past year. The journalist, Lenora La Peter Anton wrote an article for the Tampa Bay Times about a woman suffering from persistent genital arousal disorder. The day the article was published the subject, Gretchen Molannen, committed suicide.
Woman’s Sexual Arousal Disorder
While interviewing Molannen, Anton said she learned of Molannen’s hospitalization in a mental health facility and multiple attempted suicide attempts.
After Molannen’s suicide many asked if Anton had pushed to far or had outed a person who needed help. Molannen agreed to the interview to raise awareness of the stigmatized and misunderstood disease. She was also in the process of fighting for disability benefits because she would be in so much pain she could not work and Molannen hoped that educating others would help that aim.. Still, she says she endured a lot of trauma answering some very personal questions.
“If I had known how painful and drawn out this process would have been, I might not have gotten involved. I know it’s your job to get the facts and verify them but I’m not getting paid for this like you are. This isn’t fun or profitable for me — it’s a daily hell and constant mental and physical struggle. I’m sorry but this process is really hurting me. I want to get the word out and also stand up for myself to my mom’s friends but not be examined under a microscope. I’m exhausted. I hope you can understand and I appreciate your work,” Molannen said.
Anton reflected in a long form piece published at the end of November. She met with a psychologist after Molannen’s death and has dealt with criticism and self-blame. Though Anton says both her editor and her psychologist told her she was not to blame, and that Anton had already planned to kill herself before meeting Molannen, she still felt responsible.
In the stories that followed, Anton says she didn’t change her style of interviewing but her follow ups did. She stayed connected to subjects much longer, checking on their well-being.
From her experiences and advice she receive, Molannen offered tips for journalists dealing with subjects dealing with mental illness. She warns against romanticizing suicide and the family’s emotions in the aftermath. Specific details of a suicide can be encouraging to those contemplating it or those who are depressed. Failing to acknowledge the complexity and multiple factors that cause suicide is dangerous and doesn’t present the entire scope of the issue.
From my own experiences I believe that when discussing mental illness journalists should strive to avoid words that stigmatize mental illness and words that can be triggering for people who have suffered trauma or are contemplating suicide.
An important topic not fully discussed in Anton’s follow-up piece was how journalists should care of themselves. In her reflection it is clear that Anton has been affected and it is likely that the guilt of Molannen’s death will remain with her for the rest of her career.
Suicide is a very complex issue and according to Poynter, researchers have warned journalists that it is dangerous to try to connect their story with suicide because there are generally many underlying factors.
Mental illness and journalistic ethics are both complex topics and I’m not going to pretend to have the answer for how to tackle either. However I do think it is important for journalist’s surround themselves with support systems to fall back on. Luckily for Anton, she was able to speak to a psychologist and had the support of her editor.
Not everyone acknowledges the seriousness of good mental health. Many journalists have suffered mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder. The mental health risks that journalists face is often overlooked. So, as journalists we are sworn to protect or sources but we also need to protect ourselves.
To seek help with a mental illness contact the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.