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The Conundrum of Suicide. Why the Media Should Cover Them But Why We Can't

He was 14-years-old. He had a fight with his girlfriend and made a decision that would change the lives of so many others. He hung himself. He was a student and athlete at my daughter’s school. At that young age, they grasped to understand but could not. Less than a year later, his mother, leaving other children behind, committed suicide — never getting over the loss of her son. His memorial picture hung on my refrigerator for years. I sometimes touched it, mourning the loss of someone I never knew.

Most people don’t realize that there are nearly twice as many deaths by suicide each year than death by homicide in the United States. About 30,000 people take their lives each year. Another 750,000 attempt suicide. In the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010, there were 22,571 gun homicides compared to 34,232 gun suicides. And we’re just talking deaths by guns here.

Those of us in the media are confronted weekly by suicide. This week, Robin Williams, the brilliant, buoyant actor-comedian killed himself by asphyxiation/hanging (third most common form of suicide behind guns and jumping off buildings.) For us in the news business, we deal with jumper on bridge. The man or woman dangling from a freeway. Death by cop — when a suspect intentionally points a weapon at an officer knowing the cop will shoot him. The hush-hush cover up of the student who took his or her own life at school or home. I remember sending a reporter out to a shooting at a local school, only to find out a student took his own life by gun in campus bathroom. And the story faded away.

Why? Because journalists for generations have been told not to cover suicides. And worse yet, several studies have shown the more we cover them, we might encourage copycats.

The tragedy of the 14-year-old boy made me investigate the rampant scourge of suicide. Even my sunny home state of California has more suicides than homicides.

I had my staff research this several years ago. There was a rash of suicides in Japan by people throwing themselves in front of trains. The more the media reported, the more suicides occurred. But when Japanese media decided not to cover the suicides, they decreased dramatically.

Google “Suicide Copycat”. Suicides increase profoundly each time a high-profile figure takes his or her own life. Suicides spiked 12 percent after Marilyn Monroe supposedly killed herself.

For more than a decade, I’ve wanted my news radio station KFBK in Sacramento, CA to do a series on suicide. Every time I heard of a teen death. A senseless death. But I’ve failed myself. I can’t figure out how to make this very important but depressing issue palatable to the public. I can hear the click of a thousand dials being turned over to music....

I would guess most of us know someone who died or attempted suicide rather than someone who was murdered. We all know someone deeply depressed, hurting or hopeless.

The past month a neighbor called to tell me the woman next door to me died. She killed herself. Turned her car on in the garage and laid down. Forever. Her body wasn’t found for days. My next door neighbor committed suicide.

The number one reason for suicide is depression. Help me. Help us. How do we get message out? How do we get much-needed help to those suffering before another despondent 14-year-old or Robin Williams takes their brilliant life...

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