Tag Archives: suicide

Ways people die by state, including drunken falls in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin and nearby Iowa and Minnesota, there are disproportionate instances of accidental falls that are fatal. It’s a phenomenon that has puzzled researchers for years, said Patrick Remington, an associate dean at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin.

“We’ve supposed that it’s due to cloudy weather, no sun and so no vitamin D (which promotes bone health), but there’s not been a good answer yet,” Remington said. Wisconsin’s Health Department has a fall prevention program, which points out that the elderly are particularly susceptible to falling.

Elizabeth Stein, a preventive medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin medical school, said low vitamin D levels can lead to both fatal falls and dementia in older people, though studies have yet to confirm a link between those causes of death and the area’s cloudy weather.

But Wisconsin has an unusually high number of people who fall to their deaths while inebriated. A study last year found that in 2012 more people in the state died from falling while drunk (349) than driving while drunk (223).

A study released just a week ago by 24/7 Wall Street found that 7 of the country’s top 10 “drunkest cities” are in Wisconsin, led by Appleton at No. 1. Twelve of the 20 drunkest cities in the nation are in Wisconsin, including Madison (fourth highest) and Milwaukee (17th highest).

“Drunkenness”per city was measured by the percent of the population that acknowledged either binge drinking (4 to 5 drinks at one time) or drinking heavily (15 or more drinks in one week.)

The findings used data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Although Wisconsin is the drunkest state in America, alcohol is more likely to be the cause of death in much of the Southwest than in other parts of the country. New Mexico and Arizona, where American Indian reservations have struggled with alcohol for decades, have high rates of alcohol-related deaths.

Varied by region

Although the top causes of death are similar for most states, many states have their own peculiar hard cases —types of deaths whose rates are higher than the national norm, a Stateline analysis of 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

The analysis, which relies on a method similar to one used in a CDC journal, shows some understandable disparities in the causes of death in some regions. The South, the epicenter of the nation’s obesity epidemic, has high rates of heart-related deaths. Some are more puzzling.

State and local health officials increasingly plumb such disparities for clues that may help them develop preventive programs and save lives.

For instance, Kentucky and New Hampshire have high rates of death by accidental poisoning, which includes drug overdose. In response, Kentucky has begun a program to monitor the prescribing of addictive painkillers. It has also expanded the availability of treatment for substance abuse.

In parts of Appalachia and New England, drug overdoses account for a disproportionate number of deaths. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, signed a bill in January calling for stiffer penalties for drug dealers and more tracking of prescription drugs, calling the epidemic of heroin and prescription painkillers “the most pressing public health and public safety issue facing our state.”

Suicide by gun stands out as disproportionately lethal in parts of the Upper Midwest and Alaska.

Sometimes states can only do so much about higher incidents of mortality. Take suicide, for example. Guns often are more available in some western states, said Catherine Barber, who directs the Means Matter Campaign at Harvard University. Their prevalence can drive up suicide rates, she said, not because gun owners are more likely to be suicidal — but because guns are more lethal if a person decides to commit suicide.

Data drives action

After noticing a stubbornly high rate of liver disease, intoxicated-driving and other causes of alcohol-related deaths, New Mexico’s Health Department this year began an alcohol-awareness program that focuses on areas of the state where the problem is most acute.

“The rate was not improving over time,” said Rosa Isabel Lopez, health data dissemination coordinator for the state health agency. “The decision was made to create more data points for community audiences and get this information into the hands of our neighborhoods.”

The state also launched a public website last year that displays data on health issues in small areas of the state, which communities can use to understand problems and target them.

Local detail, plenty of data, and plain language for policymakers are important aspects of successful state efforts to prevent deaths, said Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote a 2010 guide on the subject.

“We like to say, ‘What gets measured gets solved,’” Brownson said. Until recently, he said, communities often didn’t have enough details about health problems to make policy decisions.

In the last few years, he said, there’s been improvement nationally in collecting and distributing health data. The University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, for instance, introduced county health rankings for Wisconsin in 2003, and then expanded them nationwide in 2010.

The rankings noted drug overdose deaths “reaching epidemic proportions” in some areas such as northern Appalachia, and rising 79 percent nationwide since 2002. The Stateline analysis also found high rates of accidental poisoning, which includes drug overdoses, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Washington state prepared a plan to address Alzheimer’s disease last year after data indicated it was the state’s third leading cause of death, killing people at a rate two-thirds higher than the national average. Worse, Alzheimer’s was on the rise while other top killers like cancer and heart disease were in decline.

But the apparent rise could be attributed to better data. Washington has a more rigorous method of collecting and verifying death data than some other states. States’ totals for all deaths from dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s, suggests that many might not be reporting the disease as carefully as Washington.

Differences between the states in recognizing and coding the cause of death can muddy the picture, said Francis Boscoe, a research scientist at the New York State Cancer Registry who used differing death rates by state as a “conversation starter” about state-specific mortality issues.

“It seems entirely plausible that physicians or coroners in Washington could be coding as Alzheimer’s what other states might call pneumonia or something else,” Boscoe said. “There are explicit rules for all this, but that does not mean they are all being followed the same way.”

After Boscoe wrote last year about peculiar death patterns in states, he said he heard plenty of feedback about data-collection issues that can make for misleading numbers.

Flawed death certificates

As Stateline has reported, how the cause of death is recorded on death certificates, from which officials draw data, can vary widely even within a state.

In Kansas, for instance, what appeared to be the most distinctive cause of death — hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, killing people there at seven times the national rate — was actually more of a data-recording problem than a medical one.

“This is a classification issue,” said Cassie Sparks, of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. She said the state plans to emphasize better reporting and classification in training materials for medical examiners and others who sign death certificates.

But even if some data is flawed, cities and states can get life-saving or life-extending results by taking action on the evidence of health problems that do emerge. Brownson of Washington University in St. Louis points to New York City as an example.

The life expectancy in the city grew faster than the national average, paced by drops in heart disease, cancer and HIV from 2001 to 2010, a study published in the currentJournal of Public Health Management & Practice found.

New York has focused in recent years on using health trends to guide new, albeit sometimes controversial, public policy — from restrictions on trans fats and tobacco to unsuccessful bans on oversized portions of sweetened drinks.

“The city health department is really a prime example of evidence-based policy, of making the policy dependent on the data,” Brownson said.

Stateline is a news service of Pew Charitable Trusts. Louis Weisberg also contributed to this story.



Grand jury indicts Texas trooper for perjury in traffic stop that led to Sandra Bland’s death

A Texas state trooper was charged with perjury yesterday in connection with the contentious traffic stop last summer of Sandra Bland, a black woman who wound up arrested for assault and then died three days later in jail.

A grand jury indicted Trooper Brian Encinia on the misdemeanor count, alleging he lied about how he removed 28-year-old Bland from her vehicle during the July stop. The same Waller County grand jury decided last month not to indict any sheriff’s officials or jailers in Bland’s death, which was ruled a suicide.

Bland remained jailed following her arrest because she couldn’t raise about $500 for bail. Encinia, who has been on paid desk duty since Bland was found dead in her jail cell, also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bland’s family.

The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Encinia, who is white, pulled Bland over on July 10 for making an improper lane change near Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater, where she had just interviewed and accepted a job. Dashcam video from Encinia’s patrol car shows that the traffic stop quickly became confrontational.

The video shows the trooper holding a stun gun and yelling, “I will light you up!” after Bland refuses to get out of her car. Bland eventually steps out of the vehicle, and Encinia orders her to the side of the road. The confrontation continues off-camera but is still audible.

Encinia’s affidavit stated he “removed her from her vehicle to further conduct a safer traffic investigation,” but grand jurors “found that statement to be false,” said Shawn McDonald, one of five special prosecutors appointed to investigate.

McDonald declined to say whether the grand jury considered any other charges.

Neither Bland’s attorneys nor the Texas Department of Public Safety immediately returned messages seeking comment about the indictment. Department Director Steve McCraw said after the incident that Encinia violated internal agency policies of professionalism and courtesy.

About two dozen protesters attended Wednesday’s press conference where the indictment was announced. Speaking afterward, one protester, Jinaki Muhammad, called the misdemeanor charge “a slap in the face to the Bland family.”

Encinia wrote in his affidavit that he had Bland exit the vehicle and handcuffed her after she became combative, and that she swung her elbows at him and kicked him in his right shin. Encinia said he then used force “to subdue Bland to the ground,” and she continued to fight back. He arrested her for assault on a public servant.

Bland’s sister, Shante Needham, has said Bland called her from jail the day after her arrest, saying she’d been arrested but didn’t know why, and that an officer had placed his knee in her back and injured her arm.

After the traffic stop, Bland was taken in handcuffs by another officer to the county jail in nearby Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later, on July 13, hanging from a jail cell partition with a plastic garbage bag around her neck.

Her family has said they were working to get money for her bail when they learned of her death.

Bland’s arrest and death came amid heightened national scrutiny of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially individuals who were killed by officers or who died in police custody.

Wis. Republicans want law barring transgender students from restrooms

Two Republican lawmakers, seeking to rollback reforms in 60 Wisconsin school districts, are pushing a bill to ban transgender students from using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

The measure — a proposed mandate that school districts designate facilities exclusively for one biological sex or the other — is being circulated for co-sponsors by state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, and state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater.

“This bill reinforces the societal norm in our schools that students born biologically male must not be allowed to enter facilities designated for biological females and vice versa,” Kremer wrote in a memo.

Meanwhile, Democrats Sondy Pope, a representative from Cross Plains, and Nikiya Harris Dodd, a senator from Milwaukee, are seeking co-sponsors for a measure that would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to develop a model policy protecting the rights of transgender students. The measure also would require school districts to adopt a policy.

The Democratic lawmakers wrote in a memo, “Recent actions in our state and nationwide indicate that many individuals do not have a clear understanding of the unique issues faced by transgender youth. Adopting a school board-wide policy is necessary to ensure a safe, equal learning environment for transgender students.”

Civil rights groups, education organizations and Democratic lawmakers denounced the bill by Kremer and Nass as mean-spirited, reckless and discriminatory.

“This bill is an unnecessary solution in search of a problem,” said Megin McDonell, the interim executive director of Fair Wisconsin, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights group. “It singles out, isolates and stigmatizes transgender students, who often already face harassment and exclusion at school.”

McDonell said the bill would undermine the advances in many school districts, which “have made allowing students to use facilities and participate in sports and activities consistent with their gender identity.”

State Reps. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, and Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, two of three openly LGBT members of the Assembly, responded in a joint statement. They said the measure proposed by Kremer and Nass reveals a “gross misunderstanding of both biology and gender identity.”

The Democrats also said the measure constituted “the ultimate invasion of privacy. We don’t need big government to check kids’ anatomy before they’re allowed to use the bathroom.”

Dozens of school districts in the state have adopted best practices and modernized nondiscrimination policies, protecting all students.

The Janesville School District, for example, has a policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms assigned to the gender with which they identify, if parents and principals give the OK. Meanwhile, in the Madison School District and at Shorewood High School, policies provide for transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.

None of these districts have reported an incident of a non-transgender student being harassed by the presence of a transgender student, according to GSAFE, a Wisconsin organization that advocates for LGBT students.

“All this bill does is single out transgender and intersex students for increased scrutiny and harassment, directly jeopardizing their safety,” said GSAFE education and policy director Brian Juchems.

Juchems noted that the language in the “bathroom bill” is the same as the language in a draft policy circulated by the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom. 

“Instead of looking outside our state, our Legislature should look at the sample policy drafted by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards,” suggested Juchems. 

In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the state does not ban discrimination based on gender identity.

Illinois governor pressed to sign ex-gay therapy ban

A coalition of health advocates and civil rights activists is pressing Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign legislation that would protect LGBT youth from the discredited practice of conversion therapy.

The Illinois State Senate, earlier this summer, voted 34-19 to pass the Illinois Youth Mental Health Protection Act. The bill was approved 68-43 by the House in early May.

Now the measure is before a conservative Republican governor, who has until late summer to sign the bill into law, allow it to become law without his signature or veto the measure.

If Rauner signs the bill, Illinois would be the fifth jurisdiction to enact a law banning so-called ex-gay therapy for minors. Oregon’s governor signed a measure into law in May. California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia also have enacted measures.

California was the first. And since a coalition of national and regional groups has worked to advance bans on the practice in other states, as well as educate the public through the #BornPerfect campaign.

Campaign coordinator Samantha Ames, who is with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said,  “We hope Gov. Bruce Rauner will join fellow Republicans like Chris Christie, who signed New Jersey’s conversion therapy ban in 2013. No matter our sexual orientation, gender identity, or political party, we can all agree that children’s lives are worth protecting. We call on Gov. Rauner to sign this lifesaving bill and protect LGBT youth and their families from these dangerous and fraudulent practices.”

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, is involved in the effort. Legal director Sarah Warbelow said, “By passing this important legislation, Illinois lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stood up for equality and against a dangerous practice that uses fear and shame to tell young people the only way to find love or acceptance is to change the very nature of who they are. Psychological abuse has no place in therapy, no matter the intention.”

The coalition working in Illinois also included LGBT groups, mental health organizations, faith leaders, youth advocates, civil rights organizations, including Equality Illinois, the state’s most prominent LGBT civil rights group.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said, “Illinois has a strong bipartisan history of protecting LGBT youth and the conversion therapy restrictions in HB217 are supported by every major mental health organization in the state and should be a new chapter in that history.”

The bill’s sponsors are Sen. Daniel Biss and Rep. Kelly Cassidy.

Ex-gay practices have been widely discredited by major medical and mental health groups in the country. They have been linked to substance abuse, depression and even suicide.

Open letter to the Sup’t of Milwaukee Schools

I wish to call to your attention to an oversight, a failure to act by Milwaukee Public School administrators, which undoubtedly contributed to the suicide of one of Milwaukee Public Schools’ best and brightest teachers this past school year. While the blame for her death cannot be fully placed on the Milwaukee Public School District, it is my opinion that if key personnel had responded appropriately, this teacher might be alive.

Karis Anne Ross, who taught at MPS’s prestigious Milwaukee German Immersion School, took her life over the Thanksgiving holiday last November. She was 37 years old. Ross was the school’s lead special education teacher, a stressful job made unnecessarily more stressful by a hostile work environment that included disrespect and bullying, not from her students, but from the aides assigned to assist her.

There were four professionals working in Ross’ classroom — a lead teacher and three aides, all of them women. But three were cisgender, while only Ross was transgender. Three were black, while Ross was white. Three were paraprofessionals charged with supporting the lead teacher’s direction, while only Ross held a master’s degree and professional teaching certificate.

The differences in race, education status and gender identity fostered an environment where the majority group regularly subjected Ross to intimidation and resistance.

Ross repeatedly informed principal Albert J. Brugger. It had gone on for years, but in the weeks leading to Ross’ suicide, numerous emails were exchanged among school officials, the medical community and Ross. All of them pointed to a crisis that Brugger largely ignored.

The suicide occurred the Saturday afternoon before Ross had to face the hostility of her support staff and the indifference of her principal the following Monday morning. Each aide was named in Ross’ suicide letter, along with Brugger, as the primary cause of her grief.

Friends, employers, landlords and family too often reject transgender people. They are 40 percent more likely to attempt suicide than the mean population. The MPS employees whose job was to assist her in caring for profoundly disabled children rejected Ross.

Adding insult to injury, MPS made no attempt to contact Ross’ family for nearly two weeks after her death. Brugger sent flowers and a card, but made no official announcement to faculty and staff, who only learned of the suicide from Ross’ uncle when he arrived to collect her personal belongings.

I wish Darienne Driver the best as the leader of a major metropolitan school district. It is my hope that she will move forward with a renewed awareness of the responsibilities held by schools in our society, not only in teaching our students, but also in setting an example for our population through modeling tolerance.

As Ross so eloquently put it in closing her suicide letter, “Love to everyone, even the rotten apples.”

Madeline Dietrich, MM/MLIS, AOP Fellow, UW-Milwaukee Class of 2013.

White House backs bans on ‘ex-gay’ therapy for minors

The White House this week responded to a petition with more than 120,000 signers seeking “help to ban the practice known as ‘conversion therapy.’”

The White House said, “We share your concern about its potential devastating effects on the lives of transgender as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth. This administration believes that young people should be valued for who they are, no matter what they look like, where they’re from, the gender with which they identify, or who they love.”

The petition came in response to the story of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender youth who committed suicide after being subjected to so-called “ex-gay” therapy, a discredited practice not endorsed by any major medical and mental health associations but advocated by some on the Christian right.

“The White House statement today is historic and sends a clear message that this dangerous and discredited practice should be relegated to the dustbin of history,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “Psychological abuse has no place in therapy, no matter the intention. Conversion therapy uses fear and shame that no child should be exposed to, telling young people that the only way to find love or acceptance is to change the very nature of who they are.”

“Ex-gay” or “conversion therapy” is a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Minors are especially vulnerable to the practice, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness and suicide.

HRC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are working closely with state equality groups to pass state legislation to prevent licensed providers from exposing minors to conversion therapy, including laws passed in California, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia.

At least 18 states have introduced similar legislation this year — Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

In August 2013, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s law which was signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in 2012.

In September 2014, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld New Jersey’s law, which was signed by Republican Governor Chris Christie in August 2013.

In February, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled that misrepresenting homosexuality as a disorder violates the state’s consumer protection laws.

State to state activists campaign against ex-gay therapy

Advocates for LGBT youth succeeded in March in thwarting a campaign in Oklahoma to give statutory protection to those who practice so-called “ex-gay” therapy on minors. 

No major medical or mental health associations endorse the therapy, which is dangerous and characterized by some leading health professionals as child abuse.

Republican state Rep. Sally Kern introduced the Oklahoma bill, intending to legitimize conversion therapy and provide state sanction for the practice denounced by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. Kern’s bill was the first of its kind and a direct response to the movement to outlaw “ex-gay” therapy for minors in other states.

“It’s not often that we can say defeating a piece of legislation actually saved lives, but with HB 1598, that is exactly what happened,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a statewide LGBT civil rights group.

The bill died without reaching a vote in the House.

Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said, “Stopping this bill was an incredibly important victory for LGBT youth in Oklahoma. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ uses fear and shame, telling young people that the only way to find love or acceptance is to change the very nature of why they are. Psychological abuse has no place in therapy, no matter the intention.”

HRC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are working with state LGBT civil rights groups to advance legislation banning “ex-gay” therapy for minors. California was the first state to enact such legislation, followed by New Jersey and the District of Columbia, where a ban went into effect this year.

This year, efforts to pass legislation against “ex-gay” therapy are underway in the states surrounding Wisconsin — Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois — and also Virginia, Colorado and Texas.

“Time and again we see the psychological wreckage of so-called conversion therapy and it has to stop,” said Chuck Smith of the statewide group Equality Texas. “Even one-time champions of this dangerous technique have changed their minds as the evidence piles up that such ‘therapy’ doesn’t work and, worse, is dangerous.”


The National Center for Lesbian Rights based in San Francisco is campaigning to end conversion therapy — so-called “ex-gay” therapy — with a strategy that includes advancing legislation and public education.

The campaign is called #BornPerfect.

To get involved, go online to nclrights.org.

— Lisa Neff

FBI reviews hanging death of black teenager

The black teenager was found in a North Carolina trailer park, hanging from a swing set by a dog leash and a belt that were not his own. His mother said he showed no sign of suicidal thoughts, yet authorities quickly ruled that he had taken his own life.

Now the FBI is reviewing the investigation after Lennon Lacy’s relatives and the NAACP raised doubts about the official findings, which the county coroner also questions.

A 911 caller reported spotting the 17-year-old’s body Aug. 29 in the small town of Bladenboro, about 100 miles south of Raleigh. His feet were suspended 2 inches off the ground.

The state medical examiner ruled that the boy killed himself, but his mother said she does not believe it.

“When I saw him, I just knew automatically he didn’t do that to himself,” Claudia Lacy told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “If he was going to harm himself, his demeanor would have changed. His whole routine, everything, his attitude, everything would have changed.”

She last saw the youngest of her four sons alive as the middle linebacker prepared for a high school football game by putting together his uniform in the early hours of the day he died.

His father told him that he needed to get some sleep before the game, his first after his mother made him take a year off from the team to focus on his grades.

“OK, Daddy,” he said. They then heard a door close, which was not unusual, Claudia Lacy said, because her son liked to run at night when the air was cool.

About 13 hours later, she identified his body in the back of an ambulance. The swing set was in clear sight of about 10 trailers.

She said she felt let down when investigators ruled it a suicide and brought her concerns to the state chapter of the NAACP, which has organized a march Saturday in Bladenboro.

On Friday, federal officials confirmed they were reviewing the investigation. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Tom Walker said Walker’s office acted at the request of attorneys from the North Carolina NAACP representing the family.

“We don’t know what happened that terrible night,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter. “It is possible that a 17-year-old excited about life could commit suicide. The family is prepared to accept the truth. They’re not prepared to accept this theory that’s been posited with a rush to a conclusion of suicide so quickly. We have said there are far too many unanswered questions.”

Bladen County District Attorney Jon David said Friday that he also asked the FBI to review the case because the family and the NAACP said they had information that they would provide only to federal authorities. He said he had seen no evidence of foul play.

“Not only is the case open, but our minds are open,” David said.

In the 911 call, the dispatcher advises the caller to try to get the person down in case he was still alive. When investigators arrived at the trailer park that the NAACP has described as predominantly white, the body was on the ground. Investigators told NAACP attorneys that one shoe was on the body and one was on the ground, said Al McSurely, a lawyer working for the NAACP.

The shoes were 1.5 sizes too small for Lacy and did not belong to him, his family said.

The family also questioned whether authorities took photos at the scene, and if they did, whether those photos were provided to the state medical examiner.

David said Friday that many photos were taken, but the NAACP attorneys said they were not aware of any.

Bladenboro Police Chief Chris Hunt referred all questions to the State Bureau of Investigation, North Carolina’s top law enforcement agency. A spokeswoman for the bureau has said agents addressed all viable leads.

Bladen County Coroner Hubert Kinlaw said he signed a death certificate calling the cause of death a suicide because that’s how the form came back from the medical examiner. Kinlaw, who went to the scene, said he now wonders whether Lennon really killed himself.

“How did it happen? How did he wind up there?” he said. “These are all questions that are out there.”

But the medical examiner, Dr. Deborah Radisch, said in a discussion with a pathologist hired by the NAACP that she based her ruling partially on Kinlaw’s conclusion that Lacy killed himself.

And Claudia Lacy inadvertently contributed to the conclusion of suicide. When asked if Lennon had been depressed, she said yes, that his great-uncle had been buried the day before. She said she meant that Lennon was sad, grieving over the loss of a family member, not suicidal.

“Here’s a mother who knows at the end of the day she’s going to have to accept that either it was a suicide or it was a lynching,” Barber said. “And because of the history of the South and the history of this country, in some strange way, she would almost rather it be a suicide.”

To be or not to be: pondering suicide

Suicide freaks us out.

It does so because most of us know someone who has attempted suicide or succumbed to it. Many of us have experienced depression or have loved ones who struggle with it. 

It especially freaks us out to see someone as apparently happy and successful as Robin Williams take his life. It’s sad and shocking. It hurts, and comfort is hard to find. 

My father committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning when he was 48 and I was 14. My brother, who dragged my dad from the garage that day, shot himself in the head at age 33. Three close friends have died by their own hands, losses that weigh heavily because they occurred more recently.

There are many things to clean up in the aftermath of a suicide, from the physical premises to the emotional mess. Days of shock give way to questions, introspection, guilt, sometimes shame or blame. We’ve seen it played out in the American media in the past few weeks.

My mother felt guilty for our family’s collapse, yet she had struggled to keep a sick husband and three children afloat with little income. There was mental illness in the family tree and both my father and brother suffered for a long time from a host of burdens, all exacerbated by substance abuse. There were several “interventions” with them that didn’t work.

As a girl, I had no idea what to do about my father, who suffered a rapid mental and physical deterioration from alcoholism. Telling him I loved him didn’t help. As a young woman, I steered clear of my brother because his drug use (booze and cocaine) scared the hell out of me. I was always worried he would hurt someone. It turns out he only hurt himself.

I’ve had decades to ponder these events and what I have learned is neither new nor comforting: Despair can be overwhelming and you can’t always help people. You should certainly try, but sometimes people can’t be helped. There are so many things in our lives that screw us up and drag us down, and some of us just don’t make it. 

For more helpful advice, I think An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison are the smartest, most compassionate books about suicide. Jamison is a professor of psychiatry who lives with bipolar disorder and has attempted suicide. As such, her writing is informed by professional expertise and personal experience. She is someone who has been there and really understands the pain and all the issues around suicide.

Thinking about Robin Williams, I remembered a wonderful passage in a biography of Virginia Woolf. One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Woolf was dogged by mental illness her whole life and killed herself at age 59.

In most writing about her, Woolf is depicted as a tragic figure, often defined by her suicide. Author James King said the fact that Woolf achieved the literary success and philosophical influence she did while struggling with mental and emotional illness for 59 years “constitutes another kind of greatness.”

I love that he recognized her survival as an achievement in itself, and I think we should celebrate Williams in the same way. What fortitude he had to sustain those hilarious comedy routines and to remain active and creative as long as he did! How blessed we were by his presence.

Robin Williams’ daughter quits Twitter after “cruel” messages about father’s death

Robin Williams’ daughter has abandoned her online social media accounts in disgust following what she called “cruel and unnecessary” messages following her father’s death, a move that has prompted Twitter to explore how it handles such situations.

Zelda Williams, 25, wrote that she was stepping away from her Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram accounts “for a good long time, maybe forever.”

The move came after at least two users upset the grieving actress by sending disturbing images and verbal attacks. In one of her last tweets on Tuesday night, Williams asked fellow users to report her alleged tormentors to Twitter managers. “I’m shaking,” she wrote. One of the images was a Photoshopped image of Robin Williams purporting to be his corpse.

Well-wishers and fans online quickly rallied to Zelda Williams’ defense, and the accounts of both alleged bullies were suspended by Wednesday. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said the photo violated its policy and was “being actively flagged and removed across both platforms as it pops up.”

Twitter went further. “We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter,” Del Harvey, who heads Twitter’s Trust and Safety Team, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.”

Last summer, Twitter introduced a one-click button to report abuse and updated its rules to clarify that it will not tolerate abusive behavior.

Zelda Williams also alluded on Instagram to users being hateful following her father’s suicide: “In this difficult time, please try to be respectful of the accounts of myself, my family and my friends. Mining our accounts for photos of dad, or judging me on the number of them is cruel and unnecessary.”

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