Brad Hirschfield Live: Who's to blame in London nurse's suicide?

Dec 14, 2012

According to authorities, nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who transfered the phone call about the Duchess of Cambridge's health status, took her own life.

A colleague and a member of the hospital security staff found Saldanha hanging inside her nurses's quarters Friday, according to the Associated Press.

Who is to blame and why do we care?

Let me know what you think.

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic.

Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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Jacintha Saldanha is dead.  Who?  The nurse who took her own life in the wake of having been "punked" by an Australian radio show.  Most people don't even remember her name, but the story still captures our attention.  Why is that?


Also, who is to blame for Ms. Saldanha's death?  Given that it was a suicide, should that be an open and shut question with an obvious and single answer, or could it be more complicated than that?


Is asking who is guilty the same as considering who is responsible?  What do you think?


Let's get started!

I think the nurse must have had issues before the incident - no one that's otherwise healthy would commit suicide over such an incident. Certainly the shock jocks are partly responsible, but lets not forget about their audience. If they refused to listen to such trash, these morons would be out of a job and this never would have happened. Perhaps the nurse may have been able to get help with whatever was wrong with her before something else could tip her over the edge.

Your willingness to see multiple contributing sources leading to the woman's death is important.  There doesn't have to be a single problem or "bad guy" on which to lay the whole thing off -- though that temptation is very real for lots of people.  In fact, I wish it were that simple.


You are right to wonderf about the role of Ms. Saldanha's overall mental health given that this was a suicide.  On the other hand, she would not have been the first otherwise clinically healthy person to react so strongly to a single event, that suicide suddeny seemed like a reasnable response.  I actually think that is less about a specific mental health issue than it is about feeling so isolated and vulnerable, which she may have been, that taking her own life made sense to her. 

Before answering your question, is more information available? (1) Was she suffering from any mental illness or other stress unrelated to this event? (2) Was she harassed or hounded by the media? (3) Did family, friends, or people she respected in her personal community (e.g., clergy) shame her in some way? (4) Did her workplace supervisors or colleagues malign her? If the answer is "yes," to any of these, then maybe we can think about doling out some blame. Otherwise, as with any suicide, it is pretty easy to identify who did the deed and therefore gets the blame. And please don't blame the Australian DJs. They were just part of the chain of events that led to this tragedy. If we blame them, then we have to blame Kate for being hospital . . . William for making her pregnant . . . Charles for fathering William . . . and ultimately, the Queen!

Until you got to your comments about the DJ's, I was right there with you, and then you lost me.  You make a morally dangerous leap from appreciating that things are interconnected, to assuming that because they are, no ethical or moral responsibility can be assigned.  that is just wrong.


The real ethical challenge comes from acknowledging the interconnectedness which you wisely point out, AND the ability to take and assign responsibility in light of it, not simply walk away from any notion of accountability.  As tempting as the either/or appraoch may be, it is hardly the way to go, leading either to one-sided blame as others like to find, or to the utter absence of any notion of shared accountablity for events in our lives and in our world, as you suggest.

I'm hesitant to use the word "blame," because to me it implies a level of conscious responsibility for an act AND its repercussions. It's a legal culpability. I am not yet convinced that the radio personalities had that level of forethought. Many people are pranked on radio (whether that should be happening is a different question), few are found dead in the following days. But is there a level of moral responsibility for these people for having willingly acted in an unconscionable manner? That I'll agree with immediately.

Blame is a funny concept, indeed, and I appreciate your desire to limit it to legal culpability.  Not sure that it needs to be so, but it doesn't matter, as your definition gets you to the important issue of moral responsibility. 


You are correct that I place that responsibility in more than one location, and that its "shareability" does not mean that it is less real because it is more diffuse.  In fact, pretty much everyone from the radio audience, to the nurse herself, played a role here, and as is often the case, it is best for people to see with whom they most identify and then look for blame there -- not everywhere else, as we so often do.

I am wondering how you can pose this question without having more information (or do you have "inside information?" I did not think that the contents of her suicide notes had been released. Nor do we know what her employer had discussed with her or how they had actually treated this matter. All I have heard is a statement they they "supported" her. Without information or knowledge, how can we assign blame? I believe that the most important lesson from this event is that people should not play "pranks" on one another--I believe that the word "prank" is too trite for this kind of behavior--until we as a society reject that type of "entertainment," events like this are inevitable. It is a sibling to bullying.. Susan Pfettscher, PhD, RN

I assume you really want to know why, not how, I can pose this question.  The how has to do with brain cells, fingers typing, an internet publishiung platform, etc.  The why is simple:  because "blame" captures many issues for many people, and then in their wisdom, they can do as you have done -- begin tp o open up the category and ask important questions.


Having said all that, and not having the information you think is important, you seem ready to place your own version of blame on the DJ's who played the prank.  At least that is where you want to draw your moral lesson from.  You can call that what yu like, but would your answer be effected if you had the information about which you aked?


My point is that we all make of these stories what we choose, seeing different elements and challenges as being the most important. 

Rabbi, you are asking us to blame someone or something which may not be fair since we don't know a whole lot about her real experiences at work and her personal relationships. In the end, she is the one who took the wrong action. However, let this be a lesson, which is: all of us in our homes and workplaces have a moral obligation to create an atmosphere that is fair, understanding, and supportive of those going through a difficult time - or whatever.

I am not asking you to blame anyone or anything.  I am asking if you have an opinion and how you arrived at it.  I am asking us to think about our understanding of blame, guilt and responsibility, and the extent to which those thangs can be shared, rather than always isolating a single bad person or thing, which, if we could just get rid of it, all of our problems would vanish.  That is the ethic of fairy tales, and while it is a piece of who we are as humans, it is a piece which we should grow beyond as mature ethical beings.


I know, it's not as much fun as insulting me or accusing me of doing something unethical, but he, give it a shot!

Blame? Must we blame? The djs did what they were paid to do, an evidently starved society pays for the not-heinous meanish pranks as entertainment, and someone - one illprepared to handle the host of challenges modern society presents - bruised so badly by the prank (perhaps?) stumbles over the tipping point of a challenged life and cannot continue. Who is to blame? It's the wrong path...

I love your answer because it demonstrates how much some of us seek to avoid the use of blame and guilt, even as we use those very concepts.  I am NOT mocking your response, though I am troubled by your defense of people who were "just doing their jobs".  Surely, based on what you wrote, that is not the ethical standard by which you live, s give the the DJ's that pass? 


And as you wrote, there is a wrong path, so you too believe in guilt and blame, you simply don't want to assign any in this case.  You may be correct, but not fundamentally different from me or anyone else in this forum.

I think the DJs are being treated unfairly. They played a stupid prank. Of course it is sad that the nurse committed suicide and I feel badly for her family. But as a nurse in a huge London hospital, she had access to resources for dealing with depression, anxiety, etc. that may have been a result of the prank. I guess orverall her suicide just seems odd to me, like a huge over-reaction to what doesn't seem like a big deal.

There is no doubt that the DJ's are being used by some as the boogey men -- the evil which, if we could localize it and destroy it, all would be well again in the world.  Or at least this stry would have a moral ending.  You are correct about the insificiency of that response.  That said, they are hardly without guilt here.  the fact that they did not, or probaly could not, forsee the results of their actions, does not give them a free pass.


And I agree that taking her own life suggests that more was at work here than having been tricked and then embarassed as a result.  I would also point out that nobody wants to raise the issue of Saldanha's own moral guilt for having violated a patient's privacy.  While she thought that she was sharing the information with family, she had an obligation to verify that before sharing the information over the phone. 

Part of the reason I like reading your chats is that rather than simply looking for someone to "blame" for the negative outcomes of events such as this, you often try to look deeper, answering the more pertinent question, "how did this event come about and what can we learn from it." (And despite the provocative title of today's chat, I think that's what you'll try to do here). I think one factor that would be worth looking at is a tendency in our society to be a bit short-sighted. Perhaps this is a universal human failing. In this case, I don't think you could say that the radio DJs should have known exactly what would have resulted from their prank. It could have gone any number of ways. They were probably expecting to be hung up on. They had probably previously initiated many, many phone pranks, most going off without a hitch. What they failed to do was acknowledge to themselves the possibility of what could happen if a. their prank is successful and they succeed in duping someone, b. their prank becomes public beyond their direct audience, c. the person pranked feels deeply humiliated in public, and d. that deep humiliation drives that person to hurt themselves or seek retribution and hurt others. In the short-sighted thinking, this is a very unprobable combination of factors, making it hardly worth thinking. Far-sighted thinking, however, might lead you to conclude that it is at least a possible consequence, which might create the question, "is it worth it?"

Thanks for your kind words and for having stated s well what I at least try to do, what we try to do, each week.  I hope that as you read on today, you will find us successful!


We agree about the role of thinking beyond the moment, especially when it comes to being ethical and moral.  What we do, and who it effects, are both usually more complicated than we often realize, and being mindful of that degree of interconnection is hugely valuable.


On the other hand, the notion of interconnectedness can be paralyzing also, and that is no good.  If we stopped all of the time, to imagine all of the potentail outcomes of each of our actions, we would accmplish nothing!  Hence the term, paralysis by analysis.


It can be tough to balance the impulse to act and the impulse to analyze, but if you appreciate that most of life requires at least some of each, you are more likely to get it right.

Thank you for giving me a chance to think about why this notion of a prank troubles me so much. I think to me, pranks are best played on someone close to one, where there is love and laughter to balance out the mischief. With all the numerous YouTube videos out there relating to strangers playing pranks on a bothers me, because it feels out of balance. And there are so many aspects of this tragedy that bother me...not just this one. I pray for the soul of the poor nurse. We all have to die - I wish her life had ended in happier circumstances. May she rest in peace.

And thank YOU for introducing the importance of the relative familiarity and closeness between the one pulling the "prank" and the one being "pranked", not to mention how public the whole thing is.  You are so right.


What is funny between friend who will love and protect each other no matter what, can be humiliating and even deadly, when done to strangers and shared for entertainment purposes.  Of course, that is one of the reasons that such things are entertaining to the strangers.  They know that they are participating in the violation of an intimacy, and like all voyueristic moments, it either meets a need which the voyeur can not otherwise fullfil, or creates a sense of resolution and/or justice which they otherwise lack.


That is the part of all this in which we all play a role.  My hope is that in being aware of it, we can learn to do better, and also make sure that we know, as you wrote here and I did earlier, that the loss of a life is the real story here.  The rest is commentary.

Well, our time is at hand, and the delay there was due to a technical problem -- one that destroyed my last response.  The jist of that response was that in case like this, there is blame/guilt/responsibility to go around.  No, it is not all equal, but neither is it all in one place.


As much as it would be easier to blame a mentally ill nurse, evil DJ's, or any of the other possibilites, it's not that simple, and rarely is.  In truth, we tend to do best when we acknowledge the cmplexity without allowing it to paralyze us.  And on that note, I remind you to friend me on facebook and follow me on twitter, where this conversation can continue.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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