In a very real sense, The Billings Gazette — and other media — have become victims of our own taboo.
For so long we were complicit in not reporting suicide to such a degree that from the newspaper reports, you'd hardly ever know suicide happens in our community. After all, unless an obituary comes right out and says it, "died unexpectedly" can mean anything from a heart attack to a car accident to suicide.
Suicide is also a difficult subject to cover because it is a painful subject for so many. There are few people who don't know someone who has committed suicide, or had a family member take his or her own life. The feelings of helplessness and loss are enough that families and friends don't need newspapers around to emphasize the point.
Or so we thought.
But for the previous couple of years, The Billings Gazette, largely spurred by health care reporter Cindy Uken, has been tackling this taboo of suicide. As The Gazette dug deeply into the numbers we found a lot of stereotypes just weren't true — like suicide being something that teenagers do; or veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide was present across so many walks of life. Especially disturbing was its prevalence in the elderly.
That's what drove us to report on the epidemic numbers of suicide. And leaders throughout the state, due in part to the coverage, agreed: Suicide is an epidemic worth addressing in Montana.
We believed — and still do — that the first way you shatter the taboo is by breaking the silence. As long as we act as if suicide doesn't happen, or that it's not often the consequence of serious, prolonged mental illness, then suicide can never really be addressed. In other words, talking about suicide must be as commonplace as heart attacks, stroke or cancer.
Newspapers also believed for so long that if we were to report on suicide that it would lead to a spate of copycat suicides. But that logic — if such a word can be applied — says more about our understanding of the disease than anything. First, I know of no newspaper account that has ever reported a suicide in a glamorous fashion that would make it seem attractive. Furthermore, I cannot imagine a newspaper article on suicide would plant suicidal thoughts in a person's mind who wasn't already thinking that. That's like saying if we report about murder, someone might get the urge to kill.
That's why it's also tough to see the governor's recently created task force take most of its meetings behind closed doors.
I can certainly understand the urge for privacy. After all, this group is being asked to closely examine the medical records of those in Montana who committed suicide. Presumably, the group will study the trends, demographics and what kind of care these people received in order to make recommendations that will help curb the number of suicides in the Treasure State.
Wading through those medical records will be grueling work. I cannot imagine families want to hand those records over to a state task force. I get the need for not wanting family and friends to see a tragic death re-examined in open and publicly.
And yet, I also struggle as I see this group close the door to its meetings. In the interest of full disclosure, we asked for admission and were denied because the group would be examining medical records — a privilege we acknowledge the group has.
But here's the crux: As soon as we move the taboo behind closed doors and out of the sight of the public, I believe we come perilously close to reinforcing the taboo we had originally set out to eradicate. Closing this state taxpayer-funded task force reinforces the idea that if you die by suicide there's a stigma. Would it be any different if Montana set up a task force on cancer? Or heart attack? Would those meetings be closed?
That's hard to say because medical records would probably be involved there, too.
Yet I keep on coming back to it: It's going to be awfully tough to have a public conversation about the issue and what the state can do if all the talk goes on behind closed doors.