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Editor's Viewpoint: Communication key in tackling suicide issue

Few subjects are more uncomfortable to bring up in any discussion than suicide.

It's hardest when it smacks you in the face. I took that lick last fall. A longtime friend called me up to tell me our softball teammate Chuck had killed himself. There were no details at the time - those came out over the following week - so there we sat, turning over one piece of information: that our jolly, do-anything-for-you pal was gone.

By his own hand. It was unthinkable. Still is.

None of us saw it coming. Not for a second, even to those closest to him. Chuck was outgoing, upbeat. Always smiling. Always. Never down. He was the last guy you'd think would make that decision.

Of course, we learned later that Chuck had struggles most of us never knew about. Exactly why he turned to suicide, we'll never know.

It's nearing that time of the year when we all get together to throw the ball around and hit the batting cages. It'll be the first time we've all been together since the funeral. We know it's going to be hard. We're prepared. First game will probably be an especially tough one.

But that's just what we have to deal with. It's impossible to imagine everything Chuck's wife and kids are no doubt still going through. Not to mention his parents and the rest of his family.

So many questions left unanswered. Everything envisioned for the future with their loved one: finished. The sudden finality of it all is crushing.

It's not my first encounter with suicide. I still remember the day we showed up for class in third grade to learn our teacher had hanged himself the night before. That wasn't as difficult for me as it was surreal. For some of my classmates, however, it was all too real. A bunch of them took that one real hard.

Like anyone else, I've known other folks who have killed themselves. Or known of them. Doesn't matter. It's always tough.

Anytime we're met with the bad news, we immediately turn to the first question our hearts compel us to ask: why? Not long after, we consider the next question: what could I have done to help? Thankfully, there are some folks in the south Washington County community who know a thing or two about these questions.

The Suicide Prevention Collaborative of the East Metro came into being a couple years back. When I first started at the Bulletin, I had a chance to interview the founders. They're good people with their hearts in the right place and their focus trained on one thing: prevention.

There's a Page 1 story in this week's Bulletin that takes an in-depth look at suicide. Some statistical trends give us reason to be hopeful, but suicide is one of those issues requiring us never to take our eyes off the ball.

In the article, one of the SPCEM folks, Renee Penticoff, reminds us that it's OK to talk about suicide, especially among those most vulnerable to it: teenagers. It's when we don't talk about suicide as an issue - or to those contemplating it - that we do ourselves a disservice. To some, it's taboo. Families might say, "It's one of those things we just don't talk about" or dismiss clear cries for help.

Ask anyone who's lost someone special to suicide. Have that talk. Get it out in the open.

A good way to start would be attending the "Optimizing Mental Health for All Our Youth" event from 7-8:30 p.m. April 4 at Woodbury High School. The event, sponsored by SPCEM, will feature a professor in the Department of Adolescent Health.

The event promises to be an honest talk about an issue that happens. If you're the least bit inclined, go. Just go. I can think of a whole team of softball players who'd back you up.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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