Can we talk about something important, like suicide?

Downtown Anoka has been difficult to navigate for many months as Main Street is being resurfaced and the streetscape is being updated.  But the downtown traffic was worse than normal a few weeks back when I arrived for lunch at G’s Café.

I parked on a side street and noticed police cars on the bridge across the Rum River that runs through downtown. My curiosity took me to the plaza on the east side of the bridge, and I saw what the commotion was about: A man was on the ledge of the bridge threatening to jump into the river. Police officers were on the other side of the railing talking to him.

I called the newsroom of our ABC Newspapers, which produces the Anoka Union. Peter Bodley, the managing editor, and Union Editor Mandy Moran Froemming both responded by informing me that it’s been the policy of ECM Publishers, our parent company, that we don’t give coverage to suicide attempts.

In this case, the despondent man had shut down the bridge on a busy downtown street and created a public event. So Mandy grabbed her camera and ended up posting a photo and small story on saying that police had talked the man out of jumping, and the downtown was reopened to traffic. Covering such events, we have said in our business, will just encourage others. And if the man had taken his life in a private way, the obituary probably would have avoided saying the death was a suicide.

Given our reluctance to use the “s” word in our newspapers, I was struck by the comment of Katie Haines of Wyoming in a story written last month by Clint Riese of the Forest Lake Times. That paper, like the ABC papers, is owned by ECM.

“The subject of suicide in general is kind of a taboo subject,” said Katie Haines, whose daughter,  Alissa, had taken her own life in December.  “We just don’t want it to be that way anymore. We want to get it out there. It’s not going away. It needs to be talked about and addressed.”

Clint’s story was about the Haines family sponsoring a 5K run/walk as a fundraiser for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national nonprofit based in Bloomington. The story also reported on Haines family plans to create a nonprofit called Stomp Out Suicide that will raise money in various ways to promote awareness of suicide and the resources available to those who are feeling hopeless.

At its first event, Stomp Out Suicide raised more than $35,000. Sean Haines, who owns a communications business headquartered in Apple Valley, said he and his wife are working on designing a line of clothing that will be sold on behalf of SOS. Each article of clothing will be sold with a pamphlet that will include information about SAVE and other suicide-prevention organizations.

“It’s not contagious,” Sean Haines said of suicide. “It’s OK to reach out and talk to someone. They think if they talk about it, it might be contagious, and that’s completely false.” Alissa Haines showed no signs that she was contemplating suicide, her parents said. Sometimes people don’t. That’s why it’s important for kids, their parents and the news media to talk about suicide, just as we talk about cancer and other ailments that can be fatal.

The story about the Haines family reminded me of the suicide by a young friend of my son’s who died years ago in Edina. He was a bright, young soccer player whose parents, like Sean and Katie Haines, didn’t see it coming. Before my family and I went to the house, I called a neighbor who was a grief counselor.

“What do I say?” I asked her.

“You’ll figure it out,” she said.

And we did. We figured out how to talk about the boy’s life and about how he died, just as we would have if he had died of something else.

At a Minnesota Newspaper Association workshop a few years ago, we discussed how we cover sensitive subjects, including suicide. Most of us in that workshop acknowledged we avoid using the word in our papers. One newspaper editor in that room, whose son had died from suicide, said avoiding the subjects perpetuates the idea that there’s a stigma associated with such a death. Being specific about suicide, like mentioning cancer or diabetes in obituaries, will provoke discussions that could shed light on possible remedies and methods of prevention.

I’m interested in readers’ thoughts about this subject.

I’d like to share with you the words used by Anoka’s first responders to talk that man off the bridge. I can’t, however. My call wasn’t returned. Maybe the police didn’t want to talk about it.

Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is [email protected] Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

  • Michele

    Thank you for this thoughtful (and perhaps, considering your line of work, courageous) piece.

    Perhaps part of the stigma comes from the sense that we, as a community, somehow failed.

    There is a question I have, about the daily amount of sunlight our teenagers actually receive during the winter months. They go to school before the sun comes up, they sit in windowless classrooms and many who have after school activities or work, return home when it’s dark.

    Scandinavians take the lack of sun very seriously, and yet we ignore the affect this has to have on our kids. That, coupled with disrupted sleep patterns, has to be a volatile mix.

    Again, thank you. We do need to talk about suicide. It’s a sad, sad subject, but see the breakthroughs we’ve made in other areas by facing the issue.

    • Andy Alt

      I agree that sunlight is important. :)

      Unraveling the Sun’s Role in Depression

      Dec. 5, 2002 — A sunny day may do more than just boost your mood — it may increase levels of a natural antidepressant in the brain. A new study shows that the brain produces more of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin on sunny days than on darker days…

      And related to that, a few years ago my therapist at the time mentioned a new phrase: “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

  • Andy Alt

    My father committed suicide in 1981, when I was 8 years old. No one talked about it. My mom and brothers and sisters saw a couple different therapists when we were kids. But overall it wasn’t dealt with properly or discussed until we were adults. It’s led to some problems. I’ve had a couple suicide attempts in my early twenties, I’ve been in psychotherapy for many years and been on most of the medications available. There were a lot of factors other than my father’s suicide that contributed to my formative years being not so-well formed, but I’d have to say the origin of the “unstable childhood development” would have had to been his suicide. And it’s a very misunderstood subject, and the best thing to do with confusing subjects is talk about them. Some of the more popular misconceptions is that suicide is the easy way out, or a coward’s way out. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but I know my father was no coward and that he loved us. He was feeling hopeless, in such pain that he believed at the time that ending his life was his only option, and that tomorrow would not be better, the problems couldn’t be resolved no matter what. Unfortunately when a person is suicidal, they aren’t thinking rationally and bearing the burden of so much stress and hopelessness makes it even harder to regain a sense of calm and hope. It’s like a wound that keeps getting opened — it can’t heal, just as prolonged stress and depression makes it more of a challenge to allow a person to regain their usual, healthy state of mind. When a veteran commits suicide, it’s a reminder that cowardice is not a factor, but pain and hopelessness. If they were cowards, they wouldn’t be able to face months or years in the field. And even if they commit suicide while deployed, one might see that as cowardice, or more realistically, they’re unable to face what’s happening around them. Some people believe suicidal ideation is a sign of weakness, but the human mind and heart have limits, and even the strongest tree will break when the limits are reached. One last important thing to note is the black box warnings on different types of antidepressant medication. Children, adolescents, and adults up to age 24 could potentially have increased risks of suicidal or homicidal impulses and should be monitored very closely, especially when starting a new medication. There have been documented cases, so many in fact, the black box warning was changed by the FDA much later to include adults up to age 24. The whole history of SSRI’s or SNRI’s and the black box warning I couldn’t elaborate on here with accuracy, but I believe most people are familiar with Google.