First step to awareness is acknowledgement

The communities of Florence, Cottage Grove and Junction City have twice the rate of suicides of any other communities in Lane County

Sept. 4, 2019 — In 2018, more than 800 people in Oregon took their own lives. And while suicide is the second leading cause of death among our young people (ages 10-24), Oregon’s highest rate of suicide is actually among men age 85 and older.

According to a 16-year study recently released by Lane County Health and Human Services, the communities of Florence, Cottage Grove and Junction City have twice the rate of suicides of any other communities in Lane County.

Bottom line? Suicide is a problem that cuts a large swath through our youngest and brightest to oldest and wisest. It isn’t limited to a particular set of circumstances, financial status, blue collar or white collar, urban or rural, male or female.

There is, however, one common thread that runs through the sad and growing tapestry being woven by victims of suicide: It’s the fact that we rarely talk about it.

While as a society we champion and openly support those battling life-threatening diseases whose physical impacts are apparent to the eye, we struggle to discuss the less apparent yet equally life-threatening battle that many face each day living in the shadow of depression, despair, personal loss, bullying, drug addiction and psychosis.

That’s because talking about feelings of suicide is taboo. It’s associated with being weak, overly dramatic or is simply not taken seriously. It’s not acceptable to discuss it openly and, as a result, people often suffer with thoughts of suicide silently — planning death without anyone ever knowing until it’s too late.

Over the years, the media has played its own role in perpetuating those notions by not reporting on suicides except in rare circumstances, such as when involving a public official or suicide occuring within a public place.

Until recently, the thought has been that reporting on suicides can create a “contagion effect,” as well as cause additional trauma to surviving family members.

Good reasons to be sure, except that current research indicates that thoughtful reporting of suicide can actually help prevent suicides by creating an atmosphere supportive of the kind of dialogue needed to end suicide’s deafening silence.

Last April, we joined with three other small community newsrooms  The Cottage Grove Sentinel, Newport News-Times and Creswell Chronicle — to report on this issue through a special month-long collaboration to combine our resources in covering four specific areas on the topic of suicide.

The idea behind this special collaboration was simple: To inform, educate and inspire thoughtful discussion within each of our own communities is a prelude to the national discussion that takes place each September during Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month — the idea being to establish an ongoing awareness that lasts well beyond September.

In anticipation of this month’s national focus, we had planned several pieces of reporting dealing with the subject, beginning with this past Saturday’s story on our local Suicide Survivors Support group. 

As it happened, while preparing that story, the seriousness of this topic was sadly underscored with the tragic loss of long-time school teacher Scott Anderson to suicide that same week.

For decades, the unwritten rule was to not acknowledge these types of tragic deaths in reporting. As a result, we have enabled a silence that has only made matters worse  — by sending the message to those who are suffering to remain silent as well.

Often until it is too late.

We did not take the decision to acknowledge the circumstances of his death lightly, and tried to do so with as much respect and sensitivity as possible. Some agreed with our decisions and some did not.

While both arguments have their merits, ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. But perhaps more important is the question of why?

Experts say the best way to prevent suicide is by being aware of the warning signs and encouraging someone we suspect might be contemplating suicide to talk about it.

And the only way that conversation can take place is by turning the perpetual silence of suicide within our communities into the sound of hopeful and helpful dialogue.


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