Editorial: When a private tragedy becomes a public trauma

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On a ledge in the West Loop: Kendra Smith. | Tim Blankenstein

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Frank Main, a Sun-Times reporter, was making coffee one morning in May when a neighbor called on the phone.

“Hey, look out your balcony,” the neighbor said. “There’s a jumper on the roof on the other side of the street.”

This newspaper does not as a rule report on suicides. We view suicide as a personal and family tragedy, not a public news story, and we are wary of calling too much attention to it, of sensationalizing it, of getting it wrong.

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But Main saw that woman jump that morning, saw her die, and he could not get it out of his head. And so he did what reporters do — he started asking questions — and he quickly learned that nobody gets it out of their head — not the family or the friends, or the firefighters or police officers. And, like Frank, they want to understand why it happened. Like Frank, they wish they could have done something.

Suicide, as it turns out, is complex. To blame it on a single life-shattering event — the loss of a job, a divorce or bad grades — is dangerously reductive. There are almost always multiple causes, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, including psychiatric illness that may or may not have been treated. Research has shown that mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90 percent of people who have died a suicide.

The lesson to all of us, then, is to not seize on an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide. Better to view it as a public health issue with complex explanations, some of which we, as a society, can do something about. We can better fund mental health clinics and crisis counseling and hotlines. We can look for warning signs.

Certainly the death of Kendra Smith, the 44-year-old woman who jumped from the fourth floor of a Madison Street building, cannot be tidily explained. She had health problems, including possibly cancer, and she was stressed about her job and her relationship with her boyfriend. But there was so much more, so many ups and downs. She had slid into alcohol and cocaine as a teenager and was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. She had run-ins with the law, including a burglary and a theft. She abused drugs again as an adult.

What leads a person to suicide is clear and obvious only in the movies, and certainly this was true for Kendra. We won’t try to sum up her life anymore here. For a full and sensitive account, read Frank Main’s story, Life on a Ledge.

Instead, we’ll leave you with a phone number: 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).

That’s the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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