By Cheryl Emerson, Susan Keys, Laura Pennavaria

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A Bulletin editorial published on Oct. 16 relating to a recent suicide in Bend suggested that the secrecy surrounding this death undermines public trust. We think the issue of addressing suicide is much broader than what the police department reports, or does not report, and the timing of those reports.

In general, people are uncomfortable talking about suicide. They are uncomfortable asking friends and family members if they are suicidal and worry that asking may give someone the idea who otherwise might not consider suicide. Research tells us this is not true. People considering suicide often feel great relief if someone asks and communicates understanding of their anguish.

We live in a society in which the stigma associated with mental illness impedes people reaching out for help, and those who need to report a suicide death — be it the Bend community at large, or in faith, workplace or school communities — are often unsure what to say, particularly when wanting to be sensitive to feelings of loved ones.

We believe suicide death should be treated as we treat other types of death. We need to talk about suicide, mourn our loss, and give dignity and comfort to families and loved ones, just as we would if the death were by natural causes or the result of an accident.

The important caveat when we talk about suicide is how we do so, not should we do so. Research strongly indicates that in the aftermath of a suicide death, the way in which suicide is reported/talked about can have a direct impact on the increase in suicides.

Specifically, using the word “suicide” in a headline, talking about the mechanism or location of death, and the amount, frequency and duration of news coverage all contribute to the actual phenomenon of “suicide contagion,” or a known increase in suicide deaths among those who are vulnerable and at risk.

Research also tells us that in the aftermath of a suicide death, the use of best practice reporting guidelines can help prevent other suicide deaths. To do so means reporting the cause of death without details or commentary; publishing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number (1-800-273-8255) and local crisis service numbers such as an emergency facility or the local crisis line (541-322-7500).

Of note, research indicates that “quoting or interviewing law enforcement” in the aftermath of a suicide death is not recommended (www.afsp.org.) Rather it is advised to consult with suicide prevention experts. It is also noteworthy that the use of the word “committed” in conjunction with suicide perpetuates stigma since that term has its origins in the historic criminalization of suicide.

Instead, using “completed suicide” or “died by suicide” is recommended. We always want to communicate, “there’s help, there’s hope.” Everyone in the public has a right to know about the resources that contribute to the health of our community and that will ultimately help save lives.

We want to talk about suicide. We want to break the stigma associated with talking about suicide. Fortunately, we have very definitive guidelines to help us talk safely, responsibly and accurately. The call to action in our community is to talk about suicide in ways that we know, based on a plethora of research, can and will save lives. It is a call to the well-being and healthy future of our community.

— Cheryl Emerson is a private mental health clinician; Susan Keys is a public health consultant; Laura Pennavaria is the chief medical officer at St. Charles Medical Group.

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