Monday’s Walnut Creek Patch story about a 54-year-old man who apparently leaped to his death from Kaiser medical center’s four-story garage prompted discussion about whether suicide is “news.” That is, whether it is worth reporting. Inherent in the question are several possible beliefs.
One is that suicide is shameful and the man who died, Michael Spence of Livermore, should be spared that kind label attached to his death. The other is that reporting on suicides might give other people ideas.
Editor Dave Mills pointed out that news organizations usually report on suicides only if they happen in a public place where the event could have been witnessed by others. That is true. News organizations rarely report on suicides if the person overdoses on pills or shoots himself in the in the privacy of his own home.
You rarely see suicide mentioned as the cause of death in an obituary. However, sometimes you can pick up hints, if the person was fairly young and died suddenly and the family, in lieu of flowers, asks that donations be made to an organization such as the National Alliance on Mental Health.
One time, I did come across an obituary of a young man–yes, I am one of those people who scan the obituaries in the Contra Costa Times most mornings–and his family was very forthright in saying that their handsome son, in his 20s, died by taking his own life. The obituary explained that he had been dealing with the demons of depression and other terrifying symptoms of mental illness since he was a teenager.
My throat tightened with sadness for this family, but also with awe at their courage. They were not going to hide in shame at the cause of his death. They were going to be upfront that their son, like someone with cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, had a chronic and sometimes life-threatening illness. And, he died of that illness, not from some character or moral defect. With this obituary, the family was bravely doing its part to chip away at the stigma that surrounds mental illness and suicide.
Suicide is a major killer of Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control. In 2007,34,598 people died of self-inflicted injuries, making it the 11th leading cause of death, behind heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and accidents, including 41,059 who died in traffic accidents. That same year, 16,929 people were murdered. Suicide is also the seventh leading cause of death for men, the 15th for women, and the third for teens and young adults 15 to 24.
It’s not yet known what was going on in the life of Michael Spence that prompted him to take that final leap. The National Institute of Mental Health says risk factors for suicide include depression and other mental disorders, and substance abuse (often in combination with other mental disorders). More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors. Other risk factors include a family history of suicide, mental illness, violence, or physical or sexual abuse.
The Walnut Creek-based Contra Costa Crisis Center, which runs the 24-hour crisis lines for the county, said there is no typical suicide victim. “Suicide transcends all ages beginning with adolescence, all ethnicities and cultures, all socio-economic groups, and all religions, as well as gender, sexual orientation, and ablebodiness.:
The center says there are some common warning signs. They include:
• Talking about suicide or making statements revealing a desire to die.
• Drastic changes in behavior (withdrawal, apathy, moodiness).
• Losing interest in hobbies and in personal appearance.
• Depression (crying, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, hopelessness)
• Worsening academic or job performance and sudden failure to complete assignments.
• Lack of interest in activities and surroundings (dropping out of sports and clubs).
• Settling affairs (giving away prized possessions such as books or a CD collection).
• Increased moodiness, irritability, or aggressiveness.
• Remarks suggesting profound unhappiness, despair, or feelings of worthlessness.
• Death and suicidal themes in written work.
• Self-destructive behavior (taking unnecessary risks or increased drug or alcohol use).
If you are in a life-threatening situation, call 911. If you’re in crisis, call 800-273-TALK (8255) to reach the nearest, nationally-certified crisis center. Residents of Contra Costa County can also reach the crisis line by calling 800-833-2900.