Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett was just 14 when she took her own life in the first few days of 2018. After her father Tick’s gut-wrenching Facebook post explaining the circumstances around his daughter’s death, the media immediately created a very simple story:
A young woman was bullied, and as a result, she chose to take her life.
But is suicide ever as simple as that?
If you read one of the hundreds of media reports and Facebook posts about Dolly that appeared after her death, you would certainly think so.
‘As Dolly Everett’s suicide shows, cyberbullying can be deadly’ wrote Bernard Lane for The Australian, making the case that the 14-year-old’s bullies could be criminally culpable for their actions. Katie Bice for The Herald Sun wrote, ‘Kids must hear Dolly’s story’.
But while this perspective dominated the mainstream media, a number of quieter voices were trying to push the discussion in another direction.
Mindframe, the evidence-based initiative which aims to encourage Australian media to responsibly and accurately represent mental illness and suicide, warned against "sensationalising and memorialising Dolly Everett", while Project Leader at Mindframe Marc Bryant wrote on Twitter, "Suicide is complex and not often down to [a] single factor".
"Media covering an immediate suicide death of a young person, it's helpful to: validating [sic] family and community grief, encourage help-seeking behaviour, provide links to broader understanding of issue, Health Prof comment," he wrote.
On Sunday, Professor Peter Jones, Chair of Paediatric Medicine at Bond University spoke to The Sunday Telegraph about the role of bullying in Dolly Everett's suicide, suggesting that these stories are far more complex than the narrative the media chooses to tell.
"I do not have any detail of what exactly happened to Dolly," Jones tells Mamamia, adding that while bullying may well have played a role in her death, he does not believe this is what lead to it.
"I believe she had an acute severe mental illness, I suspect severe depression, that tipped her over the edge to making the tragic decision to die by suicide. In cases like this there is a 'Chicken and Egg' about what came first, but her death was due to acute severe depression," he says.
"I think Dolly was suffering from an acute major (psychotic) depressive episode. I do not doubt that the online bullying was a trigger for her depressive thoughts but I still believe that it was Dolly's distressed thoughts that lead to her tragically dying from suicide.
"I feel the press were quick to outright blame the bullying as the proven cause and I think it is likely this was a more complicated story."
It's a perspective emphasised by Mindframe, who in early January warned against "simplifying causes [of a suicide death] to one factor".
Media reminder of saturated coverage of a single suicide death, in particular young people and simplifying causes to one factor. We also need to be mindful re blame as young communities are also at risk through exposure. Seek comment & info via @headspace_aus & @KidsHelplineAU pic.twitter.com/bjPyh4OPzd
— Mindframe (@MindframeMedia) January 11, 2018
Media guidelines released by The Department of Health also stress that people take their own lives as a result of complex factors. Blaming suicide on the internet or social media is particularly unhelpful to young people, as it risks them believing there is nowhere to turn when they're being intimidated or isolated online, and that suicide is an option they can take.
This type of reporting is also linked to 'suicide contagion' - the finding that media stories about suicide have demonstrated an increase in suicide rates. There's a very real possibility for copy cat situations to take place, particularly when the media story is glamourised, sanitised, or normalised.
In Dolly's case, the other disturbing factor is the psychological impact the reporting on her death may have on her bullies.
"Apportioning blame on the 'bullies' could lead to them experiencing enormous guilt and shame and in turn lead to the same dreadful and tragic outcome in alleged perpetrators as happened to Dolly," says Jones.
While he agrees that people have to accept the very real consequences of not considering how others feel, "in the tragedy that is suicide, often the perception of the person who is feeling despair is that everyone is against them and comments made by others can be misconstrued as bullying".
"'Bullies' can then be treated as if they have in fact 'murdered' the person who has lost their personal battle with depression."
It's an uncomfortable reality to sit with.
When we hear a story about a 14-year-old taking her life, of course we want to know what happened and why. We assume the more we know, the more it will make sense. Could something have been done? Can we do more to prevent mental health issues in young people? What can we do to support them?
These are all questions we, as a society, desperately want to answer. And we must. Many kids are bullied. The vast majority do not attempt to take their lives (even so they may experience devastating effects on their mental health). Perhaps those who do have a particular vulnerability, and tragically that vulnerability may not be apparent until it's too late. And of course, we must work as a community and as a society to stamp out bullying as much as humanly possible.
LISTEN: We speak to Bec Sparrow about how best address the cyber bullying epidemic. Post continues after audio.
Most of us have been touched by suicide and it's an impossibly difficult way to lose someone.
There is perhaps nothing as hard and nothing as painful.
But the answers don't lie in simplifying the narrative. In telling a generation of young people that bullying leads to suicide.
Jones says the most important thing is to "talk to your kids and keep the lines of communication open every day, so you know how they are feeling and you tell them about your own feelings".
"We need to learn how to recognise the symptoms in others and themselves," he says, and how to focus on "community education and improved self awareness".
The media has a responsibility to report accurately, respectfully and sensitively, especially with a story of this magnitude. And it's essential that we do our best to remind each other that no matter how insurmountable things can seem, there is always, always hope.
Mamamia reached out to Mindframe who supported the claim that the causes of suicide are complex, and that the media needs to take this into consideration.
Griefline also provides free telephone and online counselling support services to people dealing with mental health issues, suicide, carer support, terminal illness, unemployment, and more.
National: 1300 845 745 (from landlines)
National: (03) 9935 7400 (from mobiles)