The suicide of popular television weatherman Don Harman last month drew widespread publicity.
But his case was an exception. Most suicides aren’t reported in the media. Residents don’t regularly host prayer vigils to memorialize the victims or march in the streets to “stop the suicides.”
Yet suicide claims nearly twice as many lives as homicide in Missouri, according to vital statistics data. The state recorded 8,211 suicides from 1999 to 2009, compared to 4,442 homicides.
Unlike the homicide rate, which decreased over the decade, suicides remained constant — before rising slightly between 2007 and 2009.
In Kansas, suicides outnumbered homicides by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio last year, according to the state’s Department of Health and Environment. The difference was even more marked in Johnson County, which reported 80 suicides and six homicides.
Harman’s suicide is among more than 50 in Kansas City so far this year. In September, the city suffered three in one day: a 14-year-old boy who hanged himself and two men who shot themselves, one after telling his girlfriend that “no one cared about him anymore.”
Those stories, like many others, went untold.
Like the 66-year-old man who rolled his wheelchair into the woods and shot himself in July, despondent over his paralysis from a motorcycle wreck. And the 22-year-old suffering from post-traumatic stress after a military deployment who hanged himself in April.
The shame is why suicides often get ignored in discussion about public safety.
“There’s still a stigma,” said Bonnie Swade, whose 31-year-old son killed himself eight years ago. “People think something must be wrong with the family or the parents or the wife if someone takes his or her own life.”
Swade, who co-founded the local Suicide Awareness Survivor Support group, said people tend to think, “This would never happen in my family. We know what our kids or husbands are thinking.”
But that’s a form of self-protection, Swade said. If people admit it could happen to a loved one, then “it’s a confirmation that we don’t have control over what other people are thinking.”
The secrecy only adds to the stigma, said Bonnie Ondick, whose 40-year-old son hanged himself in September.
“I’m not going to hide the fact he killed himself,” she said. “This is the sad, cold reality. … If it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody.”
Many sufferers of mental illness turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, which worsens their problems, Ondick said.
Swade said she thinks public attention will help.
“It’s a preventable disease,” she said. “That’s the way it needs to be looked at. … People who take their own lives aren’t in the right frame of mind. It’s too bad we want to keep everything so hush-hush.”