Whenever I’ve written columns about suicide, one consistent reaction has been several readers bluntly telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about.
I don’t disagree. I’ve studied the issue, read books and talked to suicide prevention professionals, and I can’t definitively explain why so many people in Wyoming kill themselves. We have the No. 1 suicide rate in the nation at nearly 30 people per 100,000 residents, according to the state Department of Health.
If it were easy to identify what categories of our population are most likely to commit suicide, solutions and strategies to combat the problem might be developed sooner. But the fact is, it’s an epidemic that affects people of all ages and socioeconomic conditions. Teen girls and boys and elderly men have alarmingly high suicide rates in Wyoming, but it’s not a problem that can be fixed by focusing on a few groups. The target is potentially anyone who lives in the state.
Wyoming mental health professionals, educators, clergy, law enforcement, state government and students’ peers have all helped create a climate where suicide is no longer a taboo subject, and that’s important. When people can safely and unashamedly confide they have had suicidal thoughts, they can learn about alternatives to get through the dark periods in their lives. Moreover, it can introduce them to new people who are concerned about their well-being.
Thursday (Sept. 10) is Suicide Prevention Day in Wyoming and throughout the world, which prompted me to think about how the media reports about suicide and to consider if we’re doing anything constructive. We cover special events like awareness walks and promote hotlines, but the sad truth is, instead of prevention, we pay the closest attention when the number of suicides peak in a particular area. It may be tidier to report on a rash of suicides on the Indian reservation or at a particular school, but it does nothing to lower the numbers or improve anyone’s understanding of why a lot of people are killing themselves.
I think many journalists are conflicted about how to personally and professionally deal with suicide. We generally have more contact with victims’ families than the public does.
When we write about someone who has taken his or her own life — especially if it’s a young person or someone well-known — reporters and editors want to offer some reasons that led to the tragedy. That means reaching out to families and friends at the worst time in their lives, hoping they won’t think we’re just media ghouls trying to sell papers or improve ratings.
Like everyone, my views about suicide have been largely formed by personal experience. It’s undoubtedly played a role in how I’ve covered suicide.
The first person I knew who committed suicide was the son of my family’s landlord. I was 6 years old, he was in his early 20s, and I played kid card games with him and his grandfather. They were the only friends I had in the neighborhood until school began. My landlord’s son was bright and could always make people laugh.
But I also remember being in bed and listening to him outside late at night, screaming and pounding on his parents’ door. I didn’t know what was making him so angry, but it was scary.
He stopped playing cards with us, and one day my mother tearfully told me I wouldn’t be seeing him anymore. I didn’t know why until I overheard the grown-ups talking quietly about how he was found in a barn, hanging from a rope.
I was shocked and confused. I told my teacher what happened and asked her why my friend did something like that. Her words offered some comfort, but she couldn’t explain why he killed himself. Most of all, I worried that I might have done something wrong that caused this to happen.
I still think about him, especially when I find out someone in my life has either made the same decision or threatened to commit suicide. More than five decades later, I don’t understand why he did it. Was it an untreated mental illness or drugs or another reason? I still want answers I know will never come.
When I was 20, I was working at my first job as a reporter and photographer. One morning, my news editor said there had been a shooting and told me to get there as fast as I could.
I quickly learned from police at the scene that a man had died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Because I’d been told we didn’t cover suicides, I went back to the newsroom without snapping a shot. That’s when I learned there can be exceptions to any news coverage policy. The suicide victim was a state employee with a high-profile job, and though we didn’t cover suicides we were damn well going to cover that one.
I did what I was told and raced back to the scene, just in time to take a photo of the deceased’s covered body being put in an ambulance. I didn’t feel particularly good about it, but I got what my editor wanted.
Back in the newsroom the managing editor’s door was open, and he was pacing back and forth and having a very heated phone conversation. The news editor explained that the dead man’s boss called, literally begging my editor not to run a photo because of the impact it would have on his family. Unmoved, my boss emphatically explained it would be in that afternoon’s paper, and hung up. Then he swore a blue streak, poked his head out of his office and told me to develop my film ASAP.
By the time I handed my supervising editor a slightly blurry but still usable print, things had calmed down.
“Forget it,” she told me. “He decided not to use it.”
I understood the pressure my editor was under, and we never talked about it, except for him telling me that whenever I was on an assignment, no matter what it was, take the damn picture. This lesson was ingrained in my brain.
And so was the fact not all suicides are treated equally by news organizations. I’d like to think our paper’s decision not to publish the photo was made out of compassion and not as a favor to someone high in state government, but personally I was glad my work had been discarded.
It was a historical record of a terrible event, but was it essential to informing the public? I don’t think so. But during my career as an editor, I had to make similar decisions, and I purposely had no blanket policy — I made each one on a case-by-case basis. When I did publish any photos taken at a suicide scene, I was largely guided by how public the death was and whether the picture had any value in telling the story. If the image was gory, I didn’t run it.
I’ve had several relatives and friends kill themselves, and they all had a significant impact on me. But it was the double suicide of a severely ailing elderly couple I’d known for years that has most colored my thoughts about suicide.
As one of the couple’s friends — combined with their unusual decision to end their lives together — I was interviewed by a few reporters. I said I just wish I could have talked to them one more time and tried to convince them to choose life.
I still consider it one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said. Yes, I wish with all my heart they were still alive, and I miss them. But nothing gave me the right to judge their joint decision, because I hadn’t felt the mental and physical pain they suffered. And what on earth possessed me to believe my argument could have changed their decision? I’m not a qualified counselor. According to their note, they couldn’t bear the thought of life without each other.
Still, I believe we need to do everything we can — expert counseling, mentoring, suicide hotlines and safety classes — to keep people alive and not shatter the lives of those who love them.
I hope Wyoming’s Suicide Prevention Day can spark a much-needed dialogue in our state. We should have the common goal to end this tragic waste of so many of our neighbors’ lives. I don’t understand all the causes of the problem, but I know we have people of all ages and backgrounds who possess the wills and the abilities to make a difference. Let’s encourage them as much as we can.
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