Speak Your Piece: Small-Town Suicides — Facing Facts

The suicide rate is higher rural areas, but some weekly newspaper editors won’t run stories about self-inflicted deaths, reflecting community reluctance to talk about the issue. An editor in Tennessee took a different approach – covering basic information about such deaths and helping his county find a way confront the problem.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2013, the suicide rate in rural (noncore) counties was nearly 70 percent higher than the rate in large, central cities, according to Center for Disease Control data. (Noncore counties have no city larger than 10,000 residents.) Whether to cover suicides in small-town papers was a recent topic of discussion in an online forum of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. We asked one of the participants in that discussion, Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tennessee, to tell us how he decided his paper should cover suicides and get more involved in the issue.

Publishing news reports on suicides in your community is no fun, can be upsetting to the family and friends involved and, generally, is not what you signed up for.

Except for this:

There probably are more suicides in your community than motor vehicle fatalities and homicides.

You report those, right?

In the United States, “intentional self harm” was the 10th leading cause of death during 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control, at a rate of 22.1 per 100,000. Motor vehicle accidents? 10.7 per 100,000. Murders? 5.1 per 100,000. Gun-related homicide? 3.5 per 100,000.

The comparison clearly indicates that suicide is occurring at an alarming rate.

Have you heard the bell?

I woke up to the depth of the problem in my community in 2003 when, during the first four months of that year, six persons had taken their lives, all by firearms. It’s hard for a reporter who tracks police activity to ignore that, even if you don’t report it.

By the end of the year, Hickman County, Tennessee (population 23,000 at the time) had experienced 13 suicides, all of them violent.

That’s a rate of 56 per 100,000.

Suicide_Map
Map ranks counties by suicide rates over the period 2005-2014 by quartile (the top 25 percent are the darkest color). Click on the map to make it interactive, then click on counties for data. Unshaded counties do not have data. (The CDC does not release data for counties with fewer than 10 suicides because of privacy concerns.)

Back in the early part of 2003 — my 18th year as editor of this weekly newspaper — I knew something was happening that we had not seen before. Even more frustratingly, there was no source to turn to – no administrator or minister or emergency responder who could, or was allowed, to add context or reasons.

At the time, the national recession had barely started, though Hickman County is generally in the bottom third of Tennessee counties when it comes to things like income and child well-being and health and . . . that was not good enough, I decided.

I found my way to the state-funded Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network and its executive director, Scott Ridgway. He understood, and immediately agreed – in our first phone conversation – to seek medical and mental health professionals, locally and from the region, to sit down and figure out how to begin attacking the problem.

And it can be attacked. Training sessions will help anyone begin to see signs that might indicate a downward path.

In 2003, the new Hickman County Suicide Prevention Task Force began organizing those sessions, including the short ”Question, Persuade, Refer” session, which is surprisingly simple. In the years since, the group has become a fixture at community events, supplying prevention information; an annual remembrance is focused on victims and families, highlighted by a balloon release. The local task force chair has been the statewide chair, too; and a second group has been created to bring together surviving family members who are struggling with their losses.

All of it has added awareness.

In Tennessee, it has been helpful that teachers must go through suicide prevention training each year, since young people are of major concern for suicide. A year ago, because of the task force’s work here, the statewide group was permitted to bring grief counselors to one of our high schools when a 15-year-old girl took her life.

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Bradley A. Martin

This community is coming to grips with a problem that may be worse in struggling rural places. No link to the local task force can be directly made, but I know that the number of suicides here have decreased on an annual basis since that awful 2003. The worst since then has been eight, in 2010; in 2013, there were 4, which was a rate of 16.5 per 100,000.

That’s almost even with the Tennessee rate, which was 14.4 that year. Both are better than the U.S. rate – but there’s still more suicides that murders here.

My reporting continues. I do not write long, involved pieces that include interviews with family members and friends; I am a one-man shop at a weekly, but I do seek out additional biographical information that can help others remember who the persons was, not just how he ended his life.

Just this week, we had a death here that was preliminarily reported by the Sheriff’s Department as a suicide. That’s not confirmed, so I wait – but I have come across information that this man was a veteran of the U.S. Army who had served overseas, and I will be happy to include that.

It makes me think of the other epidemic: 22 veterans commit suicide each day in this country.

That’s worth reporting, right?

My suicide reports – yes, they include method but not the gory details — also include this short paragraph at the end: “If you are contemplating suicide, consider calling the national suicide prevention hotline, where you can speak with someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).” I call it myself every time before publishing it, to make sure it’s still the right number.

A few colleagues have criticized that as Polyannish. So be it. Given the rate of suicide, and the unabating concern that any such reports will cause a “copycat” effect, I will take that hit, because some people need all the help they can get.

And I am a community newspaper editor.

Bradley A. Martin is editor of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tennessee. He’s married, has two children, and is active in various civic activities such as Boy Scouts.

 

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