Suicide Experts Caution Against Assuming Ramirez Death Was Work-Related

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By: Joe Strupp As police investigate the possible suicide of San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News veteran Richard Ramirez, experts in journalism-related trauma are cautioning against assumptions that the action was work-related.

"In a case like this, it is important not to speculate and reach beyond what is known about the facts in the case," said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington. "Journalists are as complicated as anyone else, they suffer from hidden depression as much as anyone. Don't assume it is related to the job."

But Shapiro and Dr. Frank Ochberg, a Dart psychiatrist and founder of the center, agreed that recent economic downturns and ongoing job cuts at newspapers are creating a stressful atmosphere for mid-career journalists like Ramirez. "Conditions of employment are not very good right now -- and often it is more upsetting dealing with conditions of employment than vicarious trauma," Dr. Ochberg said.

Shapiro echoed that concern, adding, "This is an extremely stressful time for anyone in the middle of their journalism career."

Their comments followed speculation today that Ramirez, 44, had possibly taken his own life. The Mercury News reported that police investigating his death are considering the possibility of suicide, noting he was found with a knife wound to the stomach and that no other people were believed to be involved. The paper also reported that his wife, Janet Dalke, said he had been concerned about recent job cuts at the Mercury News.

"Don't jump to conclusions," Dr. Ochberg added about why he might have done it. "Suicide in a man of that age is more often connected to an underlying major mental illness than it is to an external event. These things can come together and certain kinds of pressure can cause suicidal ruminations."

But both Ochberg and Shapiro said the incident, if it turns out to be a suicide, will be a reminder that anyone affected by the current news industry downsizing must be watched for suicidal tendencies.

"It certainly contributes mightily to stress," Shapiro said of the job cuts and increased layoff and buyout climate. "Anyone feeling stressful is going to feel further trapped by events in the industry now. All mid-career journalists are now dealing with enormous uncertainty in the future and enormous doubts about what choices they face. This is a time when we can be looking out for each other."

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