In December, 300 patrons filled a community forum room at Ohio State University to discuss a great tragedy in America that often goes unspoken: suicide. At that forum, a young girl approached Alan Miller, editor of the Columbus Dispatch, and told him, “Thank you for saving my life.”
Miller received the same kind of overwhelming feedback from many community members who had read the paper’s six part series, “Silent Suffering,” (ow.ly/XhoOH), which documented the stories of people who had taken their own lives and the effects it had on their families and communities. The series included nine stories with photos and six videos.
“It’s a topic that touches everyone,” Miller said. “It seems like a topic you shouldn’t talk about, but why? When it’s completely preventable? It’s like saying we shouldn’t talk about homicide.”
Reporters Mike Wagner, Jill Riepenhoff and Lori Kurtzman chronicled each story over the course of nine months. They traveled to surrounding counties collecting data from death records, and compiled a spreadsheet of suicide causes including mental health issues, family histories, and substance abuse dating back 15 years.
Riepenhoff said it was often a battle to obtain the necessary death records and data, and when it came time to speak with people who had been touched by suicide, they feared no one would talk to them. But that wasn’t the case at all, Wagner said.
The team reached out to sources through social media, family members or friends, and even cold called some of them.
“I cold called (one woman),” Riepenhoff said, expecting to be turned away. Instead, “She said, ‘Great, let’s talk this afternoon.’”
At the December forum, a month after publication and in partnership with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, people from everywhere attended—including one woman who drove eight hours from Virginia. Wagner was even approached by a state lawmaker who had been personally affected by suicide and urged the paper to “hound him” and push for better laws. In addition, Wagner said suicide support and advocacy groups saw an “unprecedented spike in calls” after the series was published. The paper also reprinted 5,000 copies of the series to pass out in the community and to place in medical offices.
“Readers have told me repeatedly that they count on us to shine light in dark places, to root out injustice and to provide insights that inspire change for the better,” Miller said. “And we are happy to continue that tradition.”