Thursday, July 29, 2004

Editorial: Covering suicide

Published in the Current

When I spoke to Tim Thompson, father of Timothy L. Thompson II, Tuesday morning, he expressed his hope that "something good" comes of his son's suicide. Several times, he urged me to "be sensitive," saying the community needs togetherness and healing. He also told me that he did not want the issue of suicide "swept under the rug."

In my Page 1 article, I have tried to respond to the community's very public grief, and to provide the assistance a newspaper can: information, context and resources.

The numbers are chilling: 1 in 11 Maine high school students attempt suicide each year. And 1 in 5 of them have seriously considered it. Also, according to Ingraham, 58,000 Mainers call the crisis hotline at 774-HELP every year.

That demonstrates a powerful need. Parents and teachers of young people need to watch for signs of depression and suicidal leanings in every child. Friends need to keep a close watch on each other. Mental-health workers and agencies need to get anti-suicide programs deeper into our schools. A crisis hotline, though an important start, is not enough.

Suicide is something that society at large has typically not addressed directly. Newspapers, as a part of and mirror of society, have followed that lead. But this issue is important, and should not be ignored.

It is heartening that members of the Cape Elizabeth community are joining together to grieve. That may turn, in time, into action.

The decision to cover - and how to cover - Thompson's suicide has been the most difficult of my 10-year career in community journalism.

Initially, my reaction was not to cover it at all, to let the family and friends grieve in private. But when a community grieves, we at the newspaper grieve with you. One way we do that is by telling stories and sharing information.

During my conversations with media ethicists, friends, colleagues, mentors and others - including members of the Thompson family, other Cape residents and mental-health experts - I came to the conclusion that the issue, and this incident as an example of it, is too important to turn our backs on.

Suicide is an important issue in our society, but it is a topic newspapers have traditionally handled poorly.

While older studies created concern that media coverage could lead to additional suicides, more recent studies have shown sensitive and educational news coverage can help teach people about suicide, and may even help reduce risk.

Without news coverage, "the consequence for the community is that a very important issue is not discussed," said Kelly McBridge, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a research and education organization for journalists.

In writing the story, I tried to avoid elements that research indicates could have negative effects, and remained sensitive to the concerns of the family and the community.

Please let me know what you think.

Community grieves Thompson's death

Published in the Current

The Cape Elizabeth community is mourning Timothy L. Thompson II, a recent Cape High School graduate who died by suicide Saturday.

The incident has sparked community discussion of the issue of suicide, which is the second-leading cause of death for young adults in Maine. Thompson's family is calling for the public to become more aware of suicide, and has helped to organize several grief-counseling sessions for local teens.

Thompson's is not the only recent suicide in town. In the past few years, two other Cape Elizabeth residents have died by suicide, Cape Police Chief Neil Williams said. One was an older man and the other was a male teenager.

The community response to Thompson's death included a public grief-counseling session Tuesday at the Cape Community Center.

About 250 people - teens, parents, teachers and other community members - attended the meeting, which began with Cape High School Principal Jeff Shedd saying the community needs to "support one another" in the grieving process for "Timmy Thompson, whose smile we all remember."

Thompson was a three-sport athlete who graduated from Cape High School in June. He was planning to attend Bridgton Academy this fall.

Thompson's father, Tim, spoke to the crowd Tuesday, as he has been doing at other private grief gatherings over the past few days. He urged the teens in the room to "try to talk this out." There is no point in asking "what if," Thompson said.

He said Timmy had been struggling with some emotional issues lately, and the support of the community helped immensely. "We really couldn't have done any more than we were doing. We need to heal as a community," he added.

He said facing their grief together is something his son would want them to do.

"He was a good friend. He was a loyal friend," Thompson said, asking the community to be strong, supportive friends for each other.

After a brief speech by fifth-grade teacher Kathy Walsh, who taught Tim in 1996-97, Anne Lynch, executive director of the Center for Grieving Children, spoke.

She told the teens in the room, "Your parents are very worried about you, and they will be checking on you more than you would like. You may need to check on them, too."

She said teens heading off to college are especially vulnerable because they will be far from their usual support networks.

Mental-health experts agree there is no way to explain why a person commits suicide. That often makes it even harder for survivors to cope with their grief.

Lynch encouraged people to talk about their memories and to give voice to their sadness. "It breaks down the walls of isolation" and helps young people grieve in healthy ways, she said.

In a Wednesday interview, Lynch said people at Tuesday's gathering had "pretty typical concerns," including parents' worries about their kids' safety, and kids' hopes to keep Thompson's memory alive.

She told parents they should work with their children, to help them stay safe while still allowing the kids space and time to mourn. "Right now the teens have a real need to be together," Lynch said. But, parents want to preserve some kind of family structure, such as having everyone home at mealtimes.

Lynch said eating properly and getting rest are important to the grieving process. "What is naturally starting to happen is these kids are starting to hang out at people's homes," which is good because it allows some parental supervision without being intrusive.

Help is available
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Mainers between the ages of 15 and 24, after car accidents, according to the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program. Each year there are about 20 suicides of young adults in Maine.

The problem also affects other age groups. Between one and three children under the age of 15 commit suicide in Maine each year.

The demographic group with the highest suicide rate in Maine is single white males between the ages of 55 and 70, according to Scott Hutcherson, clinical director of crisis services at Ingraham, a statewide non-profit social service agency.

Nationally, suicide rates have risen since 1950. Maine's suicide rate has generally followed national trends, though Maine's incidence is slightly higher than the national average. The state has the 19th-highest suicide rate in the country.

According to statewide self-reporting surveys, 1 in 11 high school students in Maine attempt suicide each year. Nationwide, nearly 1 in 5 high school students has seriously considered suicide.

There are a number of agencies able to help people considering suicide or dealing with other emotional and psychological issues.

Among them are Ingraham and Sweetser, which run a crisis hotline (774-HELP) operating around the clock all year. Anyone can call the hotline, and get both immediate assistance and help finding further aid, including referrals to counselors.

In fact, 58,000 people call the hotline each year, Hutcherson said. Most are "clients feeling so hopeless that they're suicidal." Counselors work to keep them safe and help them find ways to seek treatment.

The Cape schools also have counselors who are available to talk with students and other young people in need. The Cape police, when they are called upon, typically take distressed people to the hospital for evaluation.

Even non-professionals can help identify people at risk, and can encourage them to seek professional help.

Hutcherson said there are two common myths about discussing suicide. The first is that "if you talk about suicide, someone will become more suicidal." In fact, he said, the reverse is true. Talking to a person about suicide can reduce the risk of them attempting suicide. Just suggesting there are other options for solving problems, no matter how serious they seem, can be a big help.

The second myth is that mentioning suicide will give someone the idea. Instead, Hutcherson said, talking about suicide can open a line of communication that can help save a life. He said it's important to have someone who can listen without judging, and to urge a person to seek help.

While many people have sad or depressed feelings, it is the loss of hope that can lead a person to consider suicide, Hutcherson said.

A person begins to feel as if there are only two options: living with whatever pain and problems are in the present, and suicide. They lose sight of the possibilities of the future, and lose focus on the potential for change. Friends and counselors can help people see other options, and can help offer solutions to problems, he said.

How to get help
If you or a loved one needs help, call the Crisis Service Hotline at 774-HELP. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, it is supported by both Ingraham and Sweetser, mental-health support agencies with long histories in Southern Maine. A statewide hotline is at 1-888-568-1112. Counselors can help deal with immediate crises and will develop long-term plans for handling mental-health issues.
For help with grieving, call the Center for Grieving Children at 775-5216 for information on grief support and counseling.

What to look for in young people
Not all adolescent attempters may admit their intent. Therefore, any deliberate self-harming behaviors should be considered serious and in need of further evaluation.
Many teenagers may display one or more of the problems or "signs" detailed below. The following list describes some potential factors of risk for suicide among youth. If observed, a professional evaluation is strongly recommended.:
-Presence of a psychiatric disorder (e.g., depression, drug or alcohol use, behavior disorders, conduct disorders [e.g., runs away or has been incarcerated]).
-The expression/communication of thoughts of suicide, death, dying or the afterlife (in a context of sadness, boredom or negative feelings).
-Impulsive and aggressive behavior; frequent expressions of rage.
-Previous exposure to other's suicidality.
-Recent severe stressor (e.g., difficulties in dealing with sexual orientation; unplanned pregnancy or other significant real or impending loss).
-Family loss or instability; significant family conflict.
---American Association for Suicidology