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Column: Suicide is not painless
Martin Cahn (2019).jpg
Martin L. Cahn

They haven’t decided yet, but tomorrow at noon, at least one of my sons, perhaps both, and perhaps some of their friends, may attend a celebration of life for a fellow student who committed suicide last Saturday. On Wednesday, we also learned that two fathers with students at their school committed suicide this week.

Like most newspapers, we have shied away from reporting on suicide in most cases. We almost never (and won’t here) print names of people who take their own lives.

At the same time, editors like me wonder which is more harmful: A) Reporting on suicide and risk both leading other people to take their own lives and misreporting facts about suicide? B) Or, not reporting on suicide at all and continue to treat it as a taboo subject, therefore keeping people who need help -- both from committing suicide and the fallout that impacts those left behind?

There most certainly is an impact. I’ve seen it this week as my sons and their friends have had to deal with the reality of these losses.

As a parent, I’ve simply tried to be there for them, not smothering them too much, even though that’s certainly the instinct, but instead being patient enough to wait it out. I hope they know that I love them and am ready to help them however they need.

Someone who once had suicidal thoughts made a very wise comment to me this week: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

However, a lot of people don’t see their problems as temporary. Suicide is the result of a complex number of situations. There are those who deal with mental or chronic physical illness, among other factors. For young people, bullying may be involved, but not the only thing that may lead them down that path. Relationships with parents, siblings, friends, partners, spouses, teachers, bosses and others are often involved.

Life can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to tell someone who can’t see a good outcome, for whatever reason, that there really is light at the end of the tunnel.

But, we have to try.

That also plays into what to do as a journalist. On Monday, the journalism-focused Poynter Institute reported on an amazing collaboration of 30 media outlets in Oregon and a non-profit dedicated to suicide prevention. The project, “Breaking the Silence: Shining a Light on Oregon’s Suicide Crisis,” is running this week on Oregon Public Broadasting, TV stations, and more than two-dozen newspapers, from the largest to small community papers similar to the C-I.

KOBI-TV General Manager Bob Wise came up with the initial idea after two high school students committed suicide within weeks of each other back in 2014. Wise said he didn’t want to “work off the same old protocol, which was essentially to do nothing.”

According to Poynter, the stories the collaborators are running range from “op-eds to pieces about resources and prevention to deeply-reported investigative and solutions stories ... to spotlight a problem that claimed the lives of more than 800 Oregonians last year.”

Dwight Holton, the CEO of the non-profit involved, Lines for Life, said news outlets should never report that suicide is triggered by a single-event in that person’s life.

“Suicide is never that simple,” he told Poynter. “It’s complex and never, ever only about one thing.”

Last June, The Post and Courier in Charleston reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control determined the suicide rate in South Carolina increased 38 percent from 1999 to 2016, the largest jump in the Southeast. A CDC fact sheet shows there were 815 suicides in South Carolina in 2016. Twice as many South Carolinians died from suicide than homicides and was the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-35.

The upside: there is hope. Help is available. Suicide isn’t an inevitable outcome.

If you need help, seek the company of people you trust -- don’t isolate yourself. If you can’t do that, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741.

In the meantime, my sons and their friends are left to deal with the aftermath of the loss of a classmate and friend and their other classmates’ fathers. They need help, too.

Luckily, they are a pretty tight-knit group who happened to be together when the news spread and have been together several times since, and not just in school.

Mood swings have come and gone, as should be expected. There is no “right way” to feel, no “right way” to be when something like this happens. Angry? Sad? Manic? Depressed? A combination of all of these?

The one thing I’ve tried to tell my sons is that talking is healthier than keeping things bottled up, but I understand why kids do that sometimes.

I think it may also be healthier for society if we “talk” -- responsibly -- about suicide in the media. Keeping it taboo doesn’t help anyone, especially those who are hurting the most.