In 2011, the fourth suicide in as many years shook the tiny farming and ranching community of Condon.
The string of suicides started with 15-year-old Devin Kennedy, whose mother found her beautiful, spirited and athletic daughter in the yard with a suicide note. Next came the deaths of Jacob Rosenfield, 17, Travis Stanford, 22, and Blaine Maley, 21.
“We went through a period of hell,” said Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt, who responded to all four deaths as a law enforcement officer. He still feels emotional thinking about those four calls.
“You never forget it,” Bettencourt said.
He said Condon residents struggled to talk about the deaths.
“No one was calling it suicide,” he said. “No one would say the word suicide. Everyone was at a loss.”
But the town eventually decided to wage war. Bettencourt and four others spearheaded a suicide prevention group called Suicide Awareness for Everyone (SAFE). One of the organizers was Devin’s mother, Cris Patnode, the Gilliam County Justice of the Peace.
During a community barbecue in late 2011, Patnode and one of her daughter’s friends talked about losing Devin, someone else described what it’s like to struggle with depression, and health professionals offered information and advice. Later events included a motivational speaker and an anti-bullying workshop.
Though organizers worried that awareness efforts could possibly make things worse, the community hasn’t lost a single local person to suicide since that time.
Dwight Holton, executive director of Lines for Life, supports such efforts to get suicide out into the light. Ignoring it doesn’t work, he said. More than 800 Oregonians died last year by suicide, one every 11 hours on average.
“As we shove suicide into the shadows and people won’t talk about it, the wall of stigma gets bigger,” Holton said.
Recently, Holton headed an effort to lead media organizations in a conversation about how to report on suicide, something journalists traditionally don’t cover unless the death happens in a public place or involves a public figure.
“They’re being sensitive to families and they don’t want to create contagion and copycat suicides,” Holton said.
The language used when talking about suicide makes a difference. He advised not to use specifics about method or speculate on the reasons and to ditch the phrase “commit suicide.”
“You commit burglary and assault,” he said. “Using that word has helped build up that wall of stigma.”
This week, media outlets across the state banded together to put a spotlight on suicide.
“The idea is to tear down the stigma,” Holton said. “If you break your arm, no one is shy about taking you to the hospital to get it set. This is treatable too. There’s help.”
Suicide, he said, can be viewed in a context of hope and healing.
“For everyone who died of suicide, there are 282 people who thought seriously about suicide, but found a way forward. It might seem like a high wall to climb, but in reality there’s a ton of hope.”
Hope, he said, is not a Hallmark greeting card, but an “evidence-based strategy for saving lives.”
An Athena family adopted this strategy while grieving for 18-year-old Collin Snider, who died from suicide in 2011, leaving a five-page suicide note directing his loved ones to scatter his ashes at a favorite hunting spot. In hopes of averting other deaths, Tim and Dee Snider described their son for an East Oregonian newspaper article as a young man who loved fishing, hunting, camping and dirt biking.
He excelled academically at Weston-McEwen High School, played football and had planned to become a wildland firefighter. His sister, Ciara DeVink, spoke during a community suicide prevention seminar, urging teens with depression to seek help. Tim and Dee organized a local Out of the Darkness event, a national walk that honors those lost to suicide and raises money for prevention.
Thinking back on that time, Tim said their reasons for reaching out were simple.
“So another parent wouldn’t have to go through that,” he said. “It was hard on us.”
People are often shocked about how many people die of suicide, yet almost everyone knows someone who died that way, Holton said.
“Suicide knows no demographic boundaries of age, gender, social class or race,” he said.
That said, he added, the highest risk is for white males, 55 and older. Nationally, 20 veterans a day die from suicide. Tribal and LGBTQ communities are also acutely at risk.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years old.
Without the stigma, more people will seek help.
“They will go on to live their lives,” he said.
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Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.