Empire editorial: Start conversation that could save lives

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

When we found out eight Juneau teenagers had killed themselves in the last 18 months, we knew we had to do something.

But we had no idea just how hard that would be.

As our reporter dug into the troubling issue of teen suicide, she found more aspects that needed to be presented and soon a single story on suicide had developed into a three-day series, which starts in the paper today.

In most states, suicide is more prevalent among the elderly, but in Alaska the highest rates are among youth. And nationwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

Although the solutions are complex, this is a kind of death that can be prevented.

School and mental health professionals say the same thing: One way to prevent suicide is to talk about it.

Talk to kids to prevent it. Talk to parents so they know how to deal with it. Talk to school faculty, friends, coaches and church members so support systems are available for teens. Talk to lawmakers and community leaders so they support and fund the programs that are desperately needed to prevent people from reaching the brink.

But talking is the last thing our society wants to do. In a culture that thrives on chatrooms and text-messaging and constant, instant communication, suicide still carries a stigma that makes it the topic people don't want to touch. Add to that the fact that many Americans are uncomfortable with discussing death by any means, and what you get is virtual silence.

Discussing the matter is exactly where the newspaper ran into difficulty. We knew that certain types of media coverage appear to be linked with copycat suicides.

Everyone working on the project - including the photographer, page designers and editors - was requested to read up on how coverage could help or hurt.

We cut certain details from our narratives, worked to avoid inadvertently romanticizing teens who had committed suicide and debated how we would photograph people for this story.

We discovered some family members of suicide victims who have found sources of strength we did not imagine. We found out that some in the community are working hard to prevent more young people from taking their lives.

And we learned that many teens are way ahead of adults in being willing to talk about suicide.

It's time adults join them in that discussion so that as a community, we find ways to prevent kids from taking their own lives.

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