Is It Ever Okay to Publish a Suicide Note?

I WROTE:  An amazing, tragic and brilliant letter:

“Trey Malone’s Suicide Note” http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/lead-a-good-life-everyone-trey-malones-suicide-note/

HE WROTE: As someone who came very close to committing suicide at age 17 (tried twice and rope broke twice), the family and you guys should think twice about publishing a letter like this.

I believe there may be better ways to get awareness to the rape issue, which is a serious issue. My concern is that most of the readers of this letter will be kids who are googling suicide note and reading this on paper creates a false legitimacy to suicide as an answer. We all know suicides happen in clusters and it scares me to think how many other suicides have or will occur because of this poor guy. I remember reading an article in rolling stone about Kurt Cobain when I was 17. There was a quite in it that I think he either said or was in his suicide note that said “its better to burn out than fade away”. I latched on to it and decided I was going to kill myself. I went through three attempts over the next three weeks. I obviously had a lot of stuff going wrong but I wonder about the impact of this article. How many other kids read it and succeeded?

I love and respect you but I think it is a huge mistake to ever refer to a suicide note as amazing and brilliant. Not because the letter was not, but because it will have final consequences.

I WROTE:  I understand and respect your concern here.  And you are perhaps right that my word choice was inappropriate.

The decision to publish this letter was not something that we/I did without thinking very long and hard about.  I was made aware of the story last summer through my niece who was Trey’s high school classmate and have been in touch with the family off an on since then.  To understand in the end why the family decided they wanted to publish the letter you should read Trey’s mother’s motivation.

While publishing a random suicide note would be truly pointless and cause only potential harm.  In this case what changes the dynamic is the issue of sexual abuse in general which Trey’s note addresses directly, the misconception that men are not sexually abused, and the now big issue at Amherst College specifically about how they, and similar schools, have dealt with victims of abuse over time.  Read:  http://amherststudent.amherst.edu/?q=article/2012/10/24/articles-spark-debate-about-handling-sexual-misconduct-cases and the original piece at Amherst that sparked the controversy: http://amherststudent.amherst.edu/?q=article/2012/10/17/account-sexual-assault-amherst-college

We obviously did put a label on the piece warning readers that it is triggering to say the least.  But in the end we felt that it important to publish such an important statement of the impact sexual abuse at Amherst with a male victim, at the request of Trey’s family to do so for those same reasons.

Let me know if that makes sense and whether or not it would be okay for me to publish this exchange on a no-names basis since I am sure if you have these concerns others will have the same ones.

HE WROTE: I understand and I know you are taking seriously. I guess I am just in a different camp. I feel like suicide is the story hear and not rape.

I believe suicide is a bigger problem than rape for three reasons. 1. a suicide victim doesn’t get a chance to ever do anything else with their life where a rape victim gets another chance; 2) when someone commits suicide, I believe it leads to others also committing suicide, thus it has a viral impact, which I am not sure is  the case with rape. 3). When it comes to a man being raped I would think there is less frequency of that then suicide. So for all these reasons I think publishing a story with a suicide note could have the potential to accelerate the suicide problem, which if I am right about number 2 and 3 could cause more damage than good. I am not saying this definitively- I am not an expert on suicide prevention I am just one of the lucky ones where my attempts failed and I got to get a new perspective.

I would also question anyone that attributes his suicide entirely to being raped and ignored. This has happened to many people and is tragic, but they don’t all end in suicide. I would bet that there were other factors going on- either drugs and alcohol abuse or mental health issues.

This whole story is tragic. My heart goes to his family. I would just caution those that are trying to increase awareness for men be raped to tread very carefully when using this story to get people’s attention.

I am also glad to have this exchange. Suicide awareness is something that I have thought many times about as a cause I am passionate. I have not gotten involved with any non profits but am now considering seeking some out.

Feel free to publish any of this exchange with out names. Sorry for typos or bad grammar. Writing on my phone in house full of wife and three kids battling stomach flu. That sucks but can’t say I don’t feel grateful after remembering from where I came.

♦◊♦

Obviously publishing Trey’s letter has been an agonizing decision for the GMP staff.  In the end we did so in the belief that it was important to be honest about this story and to respect the wishes of Trey’s immediate family first and foremost, particularly his mother who wrote in the comment section:

“Trey was my son. We published his letter because I know that Trey would have wanted his message to be heard. I can’t help but be so saddened, however, every time I read his words. The sexual assault battered him, and the lack of support from the administration at Amherst defeated him, taking away any fight Trey had left. When I read the fist lines of Trey’s letter, I get a glimpse of the novel he will never get to write. He will never advocate for those who would have been buoyed by his goodness and sense of righteousness. Trey was an amazing brother, friend, son and grandson. We all miss his intelligence, his grace, and his sarcasm. No human power was able to help my child. We tried.

I get up early every morning, and when I go outside, I look up to the bright stars and I speak to my boy. His light shines through in beams of light from those stars. When I get too sad, I close my eyes to see him happy, standing in a bay in the beautiful blue green water that he loved so much as a child.”

♦◊♦

We also consulted with the Chief Program Officer of Samaritans, Inc., which is the leading expert in the state. He told us:

— The media guidelines for not publishing suicide notes stemmed from days of print media, when such note were harder to find. Now, he said, anyone can realistically google “suicide notes” and find something if they are at that stage and that is what they are looking for.

— That said, he said most guidelines suggest not putting the story on the front page or front and center. Don’t focus on the methods used for suicide, as that can be triggering for some.

— Always put resources for where to go for help at the bottom of any post that talks about suicide. His suggestion for a phone number was the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK, which is a relay system — if you are in Connecticut it will connect you to the closest resource in CT, but if that is busy it will switch over to Boston — wherever it can connect you to that is both closest to your location and gets someone on the phone the quickest.

— He agreed that what we are doing overall is great — and he applauded our desire to wanting to do it responsibly. He said that finding ways to overcome the stigma of suicide or even the stigma of talking about suicide is important. For men, in particular, it’s even more important — because men kill themselves at a higher rate than females but ask for help less. He said what we have been saying for a while — that finding multiple ways into the discussion are really important. Combine personal narratives with fact-based articles with thoughtful discussions of the underlying causes — depression, alcohol and drugs, abuse, sexual violence.

♦◊♦

President Biddy Martin of Amherst College wrote an open letter to the Amherst community this afternoon in response to our publishing Trey’s letter.  She concluded:

The pain and finality of Trey’s suicide eclipse all other concerns, yet I call on us all to reflect on what we knew, accept that we cannot know everything, and learn from this horrible loss. The literature on suicide tells us that talking about suicidal thoughts or feelings helps to alleviate those feelings and, yet, the majority of students who contemplate suicide never tell anyone. Please make sure that you and those around you have the support you need. Pay close attention to your own feelings and behaviors as well as those of your friends and fellow students. I urge you to seek our help and ask you to encourage others to do the same.

 

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If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK

photo fleur-design / flickr

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Nathan tynan says:

    So I just read the suicide note and no I don’t think it is helpful at all to the issues to publish it. His family are grateful of course as they miss him so anything they can do to try make him into something other than another suicide statistic is understandable. The publishing of the letter though sends a bad message to people though, to me it does no more than “validate” his decision to take his own life, he wanted to be heard and thought the best way was to leave a pretty note and kill himself. In my opinion the pieces these people need to be able to read more of is people who have been there and made it out, or how the scars of their suicides never heal for those left behind. Reading a note of someone who tells people not to blame themselves does nothing as they still will. To read him telling people to go on holidays and have a good time obviously shows a lack of awareness how hard us who are left behind find it to cope with suicides. That’s the sort of stories we need, about the real victims of suicide the ones still alive.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Nathan, I really like the idea you have of finding stories of people who considered suicide – and even attempted – only to survive and be grateful.

      I heard and episode of This American Life that featured the story of a man who survived (somehow!) a jump from Golden Gate. It was un-frickin-believable. His entire body was broken. But after the attempt and the survival, he was free in a way he never was before. I wonder if that would also cause people who already have suicidal ideation to attempt more?

      Fact is, what we need to talk about here is more than just male rape. It’s also about TALKING about suicide. It’s about a woman like Trey’s mother being able to say, “this happened to my family” without shame. It’s about us saying, “We ARE going to talk about this because we don’t want people to feel like they can’t talk about their suicidal thoughts” It’s about people LISTENING to their sons when they’re depressed and helping them GET HELP that they need, rather than saying, “toughen up!” (not that Trey’s family did that, but many families do).

      It’s about taking young men’s depression, PTSD, or whatever other contributing factors seriously.

      But yes, absolutely, I agree and would LOVE to publish a series of stories by men who have survived suicidal thoughts and are so grateful to be alive.

      • Nathan Tynan says:

        I totally agree this story is about more than male rape, although that’s an important issue to discuss, and what triggered this instance, in reality the trigger for the suicidal depression will be many and varied, what’s needed is for the community to understand that depression isn’t just someone feeling sad its a real and deadly illness. We need our young men to understand its healthy to talk about issues thankfully sites like http://www.softenthefckup.com.au are trying to get this message out, and with the good promotion of Movember depression is being learnt about by a new group of people. What really needs to be promoted is that it’s no good for people to hear your message if you aren’t still alive for them to help you

        • Tom Matlack says:

          Nathan I understand your concern and obviously agree that in the end we need to be telling stories about people who have been to the point of considering suicide and found a way out. That is why I published this exchange, to be frank. Because my friend attempted suicide twice and now is home with his wife and three kids. I am quite sure that everyone in Trey’s life wishes that were true of him too.

      • But yes, absolutely, I agree and would LOVE to publish a series of stories by men who have survived suicidal thoughts and are so grateful to be alive.

        I can see that It would be great and right on the money for GMP. Real Stories by Real Men about them and Suicide. Totally on mission and what GMP has been about from day one.

        .. but In many ways there is one word that gets in the way: “grateful”. I deal with suicide a lot, people who have been suicidal, are suicidal and others who may well become suicidal due to the risk factors that have ended up carrying. Of course I have also had to deal with those who have succeeded and get labelled as suicides. As a rule I don’t use any of those labels as they are far too restricting and even pejorative.

        I’m aware of how so many people talk of suicide in bold and even dramatic language. It’s people attempting to make sense of something they can’t experience. The ideas around the subject tend to get coloured, extended and even Disneyfied, but that is how the person looking on attempts to make sense of what the other person is experiencing. It is not how the person in the centre sees things or talks about them.

        To give a parallel – I hear all the time how people describe disability. The most common phrase that comes out of people’s mouths is “Isn’t that Terrible”. Oddly the disabled person it’s aimed at does not view their experience and life as being terrible – it lacks the drama that other people attempt to impose. I hear all the time about how language is misused around Sex, Sexuality, Gender, Make Up Tips – you name it, and yet the same concern is not exercised around the subject of Suicide. For the subject to be covered, discussed, written about with any degree of authenticity some will have to recognise that Drama is simply not a factor and distracts massively from the reality.

        Deciding to take a road that is not taking you over a bottomless precipice is not accompanied by blinding Lights, Revelations and some Road to Damascus moment. It’s quiet, gentle, simple and even unrecognised and not comment worthy.

        From experience and observation – people who have addressed suicide and moved on are not grateful and don’t spend all day being grateful. They are just living life. I know quite a few who would baulk at the idea of saying they were grateful, because in so many ways they are not! They have dealt with very real suicide – their own suicide – and now they live – it’s just living – No Grand Gestures or Expansive Emotions required or even involved.

        All too often there are very Life Affirming Stories – the Guy who got cut into 72 pieces and still ran the NY marathon – backwards! Yippey – but for every Disneyesque super hero you have so many Average Joe types where it’s far from dramatic, very plain and even boring.

        Focusing on drama is also one of the most dangerosue things that can happen around suicide. It misguides people when the real danger arises. The idea that people have to be depressed to commit suicide is so wrong, and most often people become very calm, happy and even joyful in the run up to committing suicide. They have decided to end it – the trouble is over – people around them give a sigh of relief and assume all is well. It’s the calm before the storm – well it’s the mistaken calm by onlookers before the storm of recrimination with them weeping and asking “What happened?”.

        You know someone has been down and having a hard time – they then perk up and all seems great. Big danger sign!

        There is no drama for the suicidal person – to them it’s simple, straight forward, undramatic and everyday. Hum Drum. Because people are taught and even but into the idea that Suicide has to be dramatic they miss the prosaic signs that are the most dangerous.

        I do believe that GMP has a real opportunity to be on mission and make a difference, even if to just one person. But, when it comes to dealing with Suicide and men, It’s the guys story – needs to be in his language – and above all else it has to be real.

        If there is one thing that can be said about Trey’s letter it is real – simple – undramatic – if the subject was not his suicide it could even be seen as everyday and just a guy getting on with life – undramatically.

    • Nathan, scroll down from that original article and read the comments. One young man wrote to say that after reading that article he has the courage to live another day. If it saved one life for one more day that is enough reason for it to have been written. However, I think its reach will go much further than that. The entire Amherst College student body is now aware of it and in light of all that has transpired there over the past few weeks, I believe this young man’s message is important and needed to be heard.

  2. He needed people to see that it was more than an act. That it was something that lived with him every living moment. If it was cancer or ms or some other disease we could all justify it. Because we can’t see it ourselves it not as serious….sometimes therapy doesn’t work…not all swords are made of the same Steele…I hope Someone heard him…Rest In Peace.

  3. I think to reach a greater truth, sometimes we have to push the boundaries of what is comfortable or acceptable…to speak the unspeakable is quite groundbreaking here…you are taking great risks here on this site everyday….but I think it is getting better all the time…

    Thank you for digging deeper…and for allowing the family members to be heard….we need to talk about these difficult topics before someone else takes his/her life needlessly…

  4. Alchemist says:

    Some of the readers of the article that have prostates seem to have no idea how traumatizing rape can be. They seem to want to downplay the connection between Trey’s rape and his suicidal depression. This is going to be difficult for some of you to wrap your minds around but I want you to try.

    Rape can be very very traumatic. Living with the trauma of rape can create PTSD. Rape survivors can engage in various coping mechanisms, such as, alcohol and drug use, self-harm (cutting), over eating, etc. Trey’s rape and his suicidal depression cannot be delinked. It is not has easy for a man to find a safe space in which to discuss being raped as if probably is for a woman. This seems to be one of the motivations for publishing the suicide note; to put the issue of male rape survivors on the table. Unfortunately some of the readers want to bush it off the table

  5. Alchemist. From gods lips to your fingers my friend.

  6. wellokaythen says:

    Tough call. I think publishing a suicide note does do a little to promote suicide. It at least adds fuel to the fire. I’d resist publishing the note in its entirety, just like I would resist showing videos produced by terrorist kidnappers or Al Qaeda propaganda videos. Such publicity tends to encourage even more of the same kind of publicity. It’s giving people a model for going out in a blaze of glory.

    Then again, if we’re going to prevent young people from committing suicide, we need to know what they’re feeling, and maybe their last words could be a warning to others. Publishing such a note just might move someone to get help or try to help someone else.

    The dilemma is a very common one – how to explain without excusing. Or, how to take some meaning from someone’s death without rationalizing someone’s death.

    Perhaps a paraphrase or brief excerpt is the best compromise. Their words won’t become famous, but the basic ideas will be public.

    A related question is what counts as a “suicide note.” The last entry in a journal, the last e-mail sent, the last phone conversation, etc., may have hints about what’s going to happen, but they may not be suicide notes, per se.

  7. I’m now on my 3rd attempt to get a comment posted, but, because I am so verbose, and so moved by this whole story, I am compelled to write a lot. However, there must be a timer or something that keeps deleting my words after a certain length of time. So, I’m typing as quickly as I can.
    I will just say that I think that it’s appropriate, fair, and kind enough to say that Trey would most definitely want us to radically change and/or revise WHAT WE DO IN RESPONSE TO A PERSON’S SEXUAL ASSAULT. He’d want us to be as compassionate, and as determined as can be to break our necks, so to speak, to get a person the psychological help that they want and so deserve.
    If we don’t learn ANYTHING from Trey’s story and suicide, and that of many others, please, let it be that when a person has something as serious as a sexual assault or other trauma, we owe it to our fellow human being to find them the very best psychological help, as fast as we can.
    May Trey’s light and love shine down on us, and may we forever learn from his pain. We’ve got to learn that the sole purpose of our being on earth is to help, serve, and love one another as if it matters more than anything else. Because it does………………..

  8. Well said tj. Just when I was ready to stop following good men project. You have proven some are listening.

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