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The politics of help: The rhetoric of suicide and suicide prevention in the mainstream press

Denise L Stephenson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the historical forces that have rhetorically and discursively transformed suicide from a philosophical, legal, religious, and political issue into a primarily medical problem subsumed under the rhetorical banner of "mental health." In this dissertation, I examine the print press' articulation of the institutional belief that suicide is the act of irrational, mentally ill, disturbed, or otherwise impaired people in need of "prevention," "intervention," "help," and "care." What is said in the mainstream press about the self-inflicted deaths of U.S. residents---who are physically healthy, have caring friends and family, are relatively well-educated, have some measure of means, and, thus, are perceived by their peers as having everything to live for---speaks directly to the political nature of discussions about suicide and suicide prevention. Mainstream news media discussions of suicide tend to focus primarily on the mental health and "personal" problems of those who kill themselves, while suicide prevention is routinely represented as a fundamental right, a necessary public service, and a form of benevolence. What are the social, economic, political, and philosophical implications of representations of suicide and suicide prevention that ignore or downplay the specific lived reality of the people who commit suicide? Are there views of suicide that diverge from the dominant view of suicide as a health issue requiring professional medical solutions? And if there are, how does the mainstream press treat those ideas as rhetorical constructs? What can and cannot be said about suicide in the major media? Who speaks and who does not? Who are the people whose stories are told in the press? Why are these particular stories told? Does the wide-spread disapprobation of suicide in the U.S. limit understandings of suicide that do not privilege medical, psychiatric, and scientific explanations? What exactly is at stake in treating suicide and suicide prevention as political issues as well as mental health issues? By mapping the historical progression of the major ideological currents informing how this culture thinks and talks about suicide, this dissertation considers suicide's potentially subversive, political, and resistive nature.

Subject Area

Mass media|Philosophy|Mental health

Recommended Citation

Stephenson, Denise L, "The politics of help: The rhetoric of suicide and suicide prevention in the mainstream press" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3216964.