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Suicide: Ending the Stigma

To help prevent suicide, we must change the way we talk about it.
Leslie Saunders (right), is married with two children and one stepchild.

Leslie Saunders placed his faith in us.

It's uncomfortable to share personal details with complete strangers, especially when those complete strangers have video cameras, a television studio and a viewing audience of eight Western New York counties and parts of Southern Ontario.

So, this month, when Saunders volunteered to tell us, a news media outlet, about his attempted suicide thirty years ago, he knew he had taken a risk. Our industry's track record on suicide reporting has never been very good.

When Robin Williams died last year, many outlets reported responsibly, but not all of them. Some outlets reported Williams had "committed" suicide, in the same way they'd report someone "committed" an armed robbery or "committed" a murder. Other outlets reported the exact details of his suicide, including the manner of death and the specific techniques. Researchers have studied this type of reporting, and they have consistently concluded that the glorification and sensationalism can cause more people to attempt suicide.

I've failed in my reporting before, too. In February, not knowing any better, I wrote that someone "committed" suicide in a WGRZ.com web story.

But despite the news media's less-than-stellar reputation on suicide reporting, Leslie Saunders trusted us.

He thought he might be able to help.

"It's a very difficult topic," Saunders said, "but it's one that we need to face head on."

As a teen, doctors diagnosed Saunders with manic depression, now commonly known as bipolar disorder. By the mid-1980s, Saunders slipped into a very dark place, a state of mind so unfathomable to those of us who've never experienced it. He exhibited the classic warning signs: more drinking, more drugs, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of having nowhere to turn and nobody to talk to.

Suicide is complicated, and people typically develop these dangerous thoughts gradually, over time, due to a combination of biological and environmental factors. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. David Foster Wallace, a renowned novelist who battled depression himself and ultimately died by suicide, once likened suicide to people who jump out of burning buildings: "When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames."

Saunders, unfortunately, found himself in this position all those years ago.

"I would tell people I needed to die," Saunders said. "I needed to not take away breath from good people."

He attempted suicide, but he survived. His team of supporters rallied behind him, and people he'd forgotten all about began to re-appear in his life. Old friends from school. Store vendors down the street. Distant family members. He'd thought he was alone; turns out, he was wrong.

During treatment, Saunders met his wife. They've been together ever since. He has two children, a stepchild and a steady job with ECMC, where he works as a consultant in the behavioral health department through Western New York Independent Living, Inc.

"This is a wonderful ride. A great show. The Greatest Show on Earth. It's being who I am, and comfortable with who I am," Saunders said. "The outlook on life today is just simply wonderful."


Twenty years ago, Lisa Boehringer's sister died by suicide. A few years after that, she lost her aunt the same way.

"I remember, when I was younger," Boehringer said, "I used to not even be able to talk about it."

But now she talks about suicide prevention a lot, because she's a board member for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She also works as a public school social worker in Western New York.

Lately, most of her students have become receptive to her lessons.

"They just need the education," Boehringer said. "We need to look at mental health like we look at heart disease or diabetes. It's a disease."

And yet, in the media, we sometimes treat suicide like a crime. Or we oversimplify suicide, attributing it to a single life event when, in reality, it's much, much more complex. Ultimately, as a whole, we tend to misunderstand the entire topic. A collaboration of suicide prevention organizations created guidelines for reporting on suicide, and because of these efforts by experts, we're doing better. But we still fall short sometimes.

Jessica Pirro, the Chief Executive Officer for Crisis Services of Erie County, said it's often particularly troubling when the media uses glorified images of suicide and focuses solely on the emotional and "juicy" details of a death.

"For media outlets, I think it's really important to pay attention to the serious nature of what's being reported," Pirro said. "This is someone's family member, somebody's friend that died by suicide."

It's not just the news media, though. It's a lot of people. A lot of us don't get it.

Olivia Retallack, the Coordinator of the Suicide Prevention Coalition for Erie County, fights these misperceptions on a regular basis.

Part of the reason we misunderstand suicide is because we don't like to talk about it.

"Stigma is probably our biggest battle. You know, if everyone felt safe to talk about suicide or to talk about mental illness, then we probably wouldn't need to be here," Retallack said.

In 2013, the Erie County Medical Examiner reported 90 suicides. Nationwide, more than 40,000 people died by suicide in 2013, making it the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States.

To many of us, it may seem unnatural to use the term "died by suicide." For so long, we've said that people "commit" suicide— and we've said it without thinking of the greater implications of the term.

"'Committed' brings on this negative understanding, like we "commit" crimes or "commit" other bad things," Retallack said. "An individual has a disease, usually, leading up to that suicide."

And that's the key— the disease. Or, the "invisible disease," as Retallack calls it. Changing the language surrounding suicide isn't a battle to be politically correct, but rather a battle to eliminate that stigma and really get to the root of the problem.

"There's a scientific reason behind what's going on," Retallack said.

Now that three decades have passed, Leslie Saunders has begun to understand some of the scientific reasoning behind his attempted suicide.

"I'd been given at least five primary mental health diagnoses. A bleak prospect of a decent life," Saunders said. "It took too many years because I did not want the care. I would not accept that I needed some type of treatment."

Saunders describes his past self as though he's referring to an entirely different human being. He calls himself a "globe trekker" and a "vagabond," bouncing from place to place, seeking purpose, finding none of it.

"I was trying to find what was lost," Saunders said, "and what was lost, was me."

Eventually, Saunders turned the corner. He remembers fondly how much his mother helped him throughout his entire life, and he can still recall the names of so many people who helped him through his dark period: Michelle, Jack, Kim, Eva, the counselors, you name it.

But it's the present and the future – not the past – that convinced Saunders to tell his story. About five years ago, Saunders lost his younger brother to suicide, so he's now even more devoted to suicide prevention. As a contracted employee through Western New York Independent Living, Saunders has worked for more than a decade as a mental health advocate.

"I've been employed for 15 years. One job. Kind of old school but it makes me happy," Saunders said. "I'm a very rich person -- not in money, but with friends. The ability to be able to… do what I want. And I've never had that before."


To help a potentially vulnerable person, a straightforward approach is imperative.

"You can ask the question, 'Are you thinking about suicide? Are you thinking about killing yourself?' It's not going to make someone do it. It's not going to put the idea in their head," Boehringer said. "It's going to show that you're there to offer them support and get them the help that they need."

There are several avenues for people who need help, including the national Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There are also direct hotlines at the local level, listed at the bottom of this article.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has more information on how to find help, and it also outlines some of the warning signs of suicide on its website.

Lately, Pirro has found that people have grown more comfortable in asking for this help from Crisis Services. Despite some of the media's mistakes during the Robin Williams coverage, his death actually appears to have raised awareness about suicide and mental illness.

During the past year or so, calls have increased by about 25 percent, Pirro said.

"We see that as a positive," Pirro said. "We want people to reach out in that moment."

That's also the next step for the media to improve its reporting.

"Being able to understand the complexity of mental illness and of suicide, and then being able to emphasize-- that there really is hope in getting help," Retallack said.

Leslie Saunders is living proof of that.

"My message is: you're not alone. You're not by yourself. Others have gone through this difficult time," Saunders said. "Others have found a way to embrace the life that they have."

For help, please call these 24-hour hotlines:

Erie County: 716-834-3131

Chautauqua County: 1-800-724-0461

Niagara County: 716-285-3515

Allegany County: 585-593-5706

Cattaraugus County: 1-800-339-5209

Orleans/Genesee County: 585-343-1212

Wyoming County: 1-800-724-8583

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

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