It seems lots of folks have a lot to say about suicide

Larry Werner
ECM Columnist

After 40 years in the newspaper business, I’ve become accustomed to crickets. As in hearing nothing but crickets after writing something I had hoped would generate comments from readers.

So in a recent column, my expectations were low when I asked readers to e-mail me their thoughts. It was a column in which I shared the reluctance of newspapers to write about people who die from suicide, unless the suicide is done in a public place or by a public figure. I shared the story from ECM’s Forest Lake Times about Sean and Katie Haines of Wyoming, who had sponsored a fund-raiser for suicide-prevention in honor of their daughter, Alissa, who had taken her life in December. Sean and Katie are creating a non-profit that will raise money and encourage discussion of suicide rather than avoidance.

Since the column ran in several of our ECM papers, my e-mail box has been filled with comments from people who think that avoiding the subject is wrong.

John Babcock, chairman of the Bank of Elk River, read the column in our Elk River Star News. He wrote: “I grew up with the idea…that suicide was something ‘normal’ people just can’t understand; so why discuss it? The other troubling concept that was prevalent in my experience was that there was a stigma attached to it and shame involved. I think open and frank dialogue will go a long way to erasing some of the old cultural norms that surrounded suicide for too long.”

Angie King of St. Louis Park posted a comment on the Star News website questioning the wisdom of ECM’s policy that generally discourages coverage of suicide attempts.

“Suicide is a real danger to the youth and adults in our communities,” she wrote. “We need to spread awareness so that everyone has the tools to identify when someone needs help, and to encourage those thinking about suicide to seek help. We need to make it clear that diseases of the mind are just as dangerous and require the same expedient care and treatment as cancer or heart disease.”

Lisa Silbernagel of Rosemount and Andy Alt of Lakeville read the column in our Sun Thisweek newspapers in Dakota County. They argued that we should talk – and write – more about suicide.

Silbernagel said when her brother, Bryan Silbernagel, took his life in 2009, the family wanted the obituary to say he died from suicide, but the local newspaper removed that fact.

She wrote: “We wanted the real reason for death written in the newspaper because we thought that it was about time that the subject be confronted.”

Alt echoed that opinion in a posting on in which he wrote that his father died from suicide in 1981, which he believes contributed to his own struggle with depression.

“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,” Alt wrote. “And it’s a very misunderstood subject, and the best thing to do with confusing subjects is talk about them.”

Don Heinzman, a columnist and editorial writer for ECM, has been working for years on news coverage policies. Don is a member of our editorial board and our company’s board of directors. He sent along the ECM policy on suicide coverage and said he thinks it’s the best way to handle this difficult subject.

The policy reads, in part: “Reporting of suicides requires greater sensitivity than deaths due to other unnatural causes such as drowning or murder. Suicides should be reported when involving prominent public areas or public figures.”

Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is [email protected] 

  • Angie King

    I love the idea of including “died by suicide” in obituaries. It’s simply stating the facts, but is an important step in spreading awareness and ending the shame and stigma attached to deaths due to mental illness and depression. This is simple transparency in journalism, in my opinion.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion, Larry!

  • Tammy

    I just want to Thank You for your writings on this topic. I believe that Suicide is a topic that needs to be talked about in order to better understand it. When we (society) understands a topic that is when we can move forth on so many levels: healing, prevention, education, amongst many others. As a parent of three I have worn the shoes twice now for best friends dyeing to young. My oldest daughter lost her bf to Brain Cancer their Sr. year of HS(3 years ago). Now my youngest daughter losing her bf to Suicide at the age of 15(Haines) . Neither situation has been easy. I worry aboutmy children and how they are coping with death of such closeness…It is a battle ever day that they face. With Cancer it was known to us that death would occur, but with hope that there could be some medicine to help and time to talk and say goodbye and I LOVE YOUs. But with Suicide. there is not that time. There is such a stigma that too many don’t reach out.. So Please keep writing and educating… We can do this.. We can bring it forth and help out those in need….

  • Janet Benz

    I lost my 17 year old son to suicide in 2007 and could not agree more that as communities and society we need to come together to support each other in removing the stigma of suicide and mental health issues. Since 2007 our family and friends have put on an annual baseball tournament in the New Hope/Plymouth area to bring the community together to raise awareness and prevention of teenage suicide and promote healthy choices for youth. We need to create a new norm in this nation that accepts and recognizes each individual inclusive of their physical, spiritual and mental health. After all mental health is a team effort!

  • Amanda Valencia

    I am a mother of a child who attempted suicide earlier this year. I think it is amazing and great that someone is finally speaking out about this and not just for one article..or one segment.

    I asked my son after he got home from the hospital if it would help him to have resources for teens to feel comfortable talking about what they are going through…other than counselors or adults at school or parents. He said absolutely.

    Suicide, teen or adult, is so taboo…it is ridiculous. A few decades ago the sex talk was taboo..and now I got a letter in the mail saying that my sons high school is having a guest speaker on sex and chastity.

    What is everyone afraid of? That if we allow teenagers to talk about their feelings, emotions and thoughts of killing themselves that they won’t feel better???? That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

    A teenager in Stillwater killed himself at school and there was very little publication about the story. I watched 3 news stations, and nothing.

    When I launched my own business, an online community for teenagers to talk to each other (sorry for the name drop), I contacted all the major news stations in MN, and some national t.v. talk shows…not a single response.

    We preach about helping others so much, yet noone is willing to take the steps to do it.

    I applaud you for writing about suicide, I give you a standing “O” for not stopping. I applaud Mr.& Mrs Haines for their courageous work, my son knew their daughter and is dating one of her best friends.

    I have personally started contacting all area MN schools to get my online community word out there. With people like us that are not willing to back down from this cause, we will make a difference.

  • Jen Withrow

    I couldn’t agree more with talking about suicide and mental health issues, not only in the newspaper but in schools as well. We lost Andrew Mulville in Norwood Young America on 3/22/12 to suicide. The newspapers and tv stations reported his death as a suicide because it was on public property. However, the NYA school district would not mention his name at Andrew’s would be graduation or mention him in any manner. How disrespectful! A young man lost a battle with a brain disease and was also bullied by parents and students. The school perpetuates the stigma of mental illness and suicide by not openly addressing the issue. Andrew was the second student the school lost in the school year, you would think that talking about suicide to all students would be high on the priority, but not so much. The school and mental health officials in Carver County believe that “mental health” should not be addressed by teachers or in the school, that their job is to “educate children”-see the Star and Tribune article 9-25-12 West Metro News or the St. Paul Pioneer Press article 9-16-12. I have been an outspoken advocate of getting the school to realize what they are doing is a disservice to the students and is wrong. It seems that nobody agrees with me. I don’t find widespread support coming from this community. I don’t know what else to do?? Ideas???

    • Amanda Valencia

      We just have to stay strong to our convictions and never stop trying. For our children and all those that are out there suffering. Writing newspapers, bringing this topic to the forefront of school administrators, holding events such as the SOS 5K, never staying quiet about the pain, the fear and the need for the communication. How can we teach our children to come to us with their pain and fears about depression and suicidal feelings, if we as adults won’t do it? It is a question that keeps me moving in my desire to build ICE4Teens.

  • Deanna Kline

    I know this is an important subject to talk about and not to take lightly. I teach a peer counselor training class and I always impress on my students that if someone is joking around about dying or committing suicide…take it seriously. I have had so many students who have had to deal with parents, siblings, relatives, and friends who have committed suicide, that not talking about suicide is not an option. Many people believe if I talk about it, that will give someone ideas. Believe me, the ideas are there if someone is suicidal, whether you talk about it or not. Coming out and talking about suicide, may remind someone what they have to live for and why it’s not an option.