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 abcnewspapers.com 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 any more. 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 fund-raiser for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a national non-profit based in Bloomington. The story also reported on Haines family plans to create a non-profit called Stomp Out Suicide (S0S) 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. My e-mail is below.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.