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

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by Larry Werner, ECM Director of News — 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 column I wrote a couple weeks ago, my expectations were low when I
asked readers to email me with 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.

Larry Werner

Larry Werner

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 said they are creating a non-profit that will raise money and
encourage people to discuss suicide rather than avoid the subject.

Since the column ran in several of our ECM papers, my email box has been
filling up with comments from people who want to discuss suicide and 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

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
with our company for years on policies related to the way we cover the news.
Don has spent more years in this business than I have, is a member of our
editorial board and our company’s board of directors. He sent along the ECM
guidelines 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]


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