Reporter Succeeds in Getting Two Suicide Prevention Organizations to Comment on Final Exit Network Billboard!

Regular readers of this blog might remember that last September – during Suicide Prevention Week – this blog blasted suicide prevention organizations for their silence on all the positive press coverage of the Final Exit Network (FEN).  The coverage included approval of suicides for people who are old, ill or disabled. For good measure, virtually every story on FEN included the organizations website – where people could get information and contact people who would affirm their desire to off themselves as “rational.”

What we concluded was that Suicide Prevention Week didn’t apply to people who are old, ill or physically disabled:

Specifically, there is an appalling lack of voiced concern over the promotion of suicide in the populations of old, ill and physically disabled people. For the first few months of this year, there was nationwide coverage of the Final Exit Network – an organization that supports and facilitates the suicides of people with nonterminal disabilities and chronic conditions. Over the course of many months, stories appearing in countless outlets included the URL for the Final Exit Network in their stories. The website provided information on obtaining suicide instructional materials and how to get involved with the Final Exit Network. Most of the articles treated the Network and its “work” sympathetically.

In case you’re wondering, suicide prevention groups do get involved in media issues. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide and Mental Health Association International both have sections devoted to media issues. Except for a brief mention of suicide increases related to publication of Derek Humphry’s book, Final Exit, there is no acknowledgment that the suicides of old, ill and physically disabled people are being facilitated and then covered in a way that legitimizes them in the press.

Well, things are looking up, a little.

The Bay Citizen “was founded in 2010 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to fact-based, independent reporting on civic and community issues in the San Francisco Bay Area.” (This all sounded familiar so I did a quick check of the likeliest source and found that the Chicago Reader‘s Michael Miner wrote about The Bay Citizen just about a month ago.)

Given the dismal and consistent silence of suicide prevention organizations over the past year, I was extremely surprised when I read the headline of the latest story on FEN’s billboards.  Senior writer Katharine Mieszowski wrote the story that broke new ground in coverage of FEN and assisted suicide.  The title that caught my eye was “Suicide-Prevention Experts Decry Ad,” with a subtitle that suggests the billboard could send the wrong message to those who are suicidal. 

Here’s an excerpt from the story about reactions to the billboard and FEN:

“This is irresponsible and downright dangerous; it is the equivalent of handing a gun to someone who is suicidal,” wrote Lanny Berman, president of the International Association of Suicide Prevention, in an email. “This message, communicated to thousands of vulnerable individuals, suffering from psychic and or physical pain that is treatable, invites a tragic and final solution to problems that most often can be solved with proper evaluation and treatment.”

 These are strong words – and I’m grateful for them.  Berman doesn’t seem to be aware, though, that this message has been conveyed through countless op-eds and news articles over the past year, all carrying contact information for the FEN.  And the message those suffering from “psychic or physical pain” when they contact a representative of FEN is the same that is on the billboard.

The representative of a local suicide prevention organization seems to be totally clueless as the scope of FEN’s activities and who they think should be facilitated in commiting suicide:

“Regardless of what someone might feel about assisted suicide, I feel the message behind this billboard is confusing and dangerous,” wrote David Paisley, deputy director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, in an email.

“It assumes people will understand that it is a billboard about assisted suicide or they will go to the website,” he wrote. “In reality, most people who see the billboard from the street or car will not go to the website, but are left with a message that could be interpreted very tragically by someone in crisis and acting impulsively.”

Paisley seems to be suffering from severe ignorance in regard to just what FEN will be telling people when they call.  Does he really think that FEN exists to talk old, ill and disabled people out of killing themselves???

Finally, a representative of FEN has the final word – and that final word from Frank Kavanaugh is a lie – a big one:

“We don’t even think that what we do is suicide,” said Kavanaugh. “What we’re about is assistance in dying. We’re dealing with mentally competent people who are rational. People who are suicidal are severely depressed, psychotic, acting impulsively. We would never touch anybody in that kind of a situation.”

That is total crap.  The case in Arizona – in which two FEN members have already entered into plea bargain agreements – involve their facilitation of the suicide of a woman who had no serious physical illness at all, but who had a long history of emotional problems.

Kudo to Ms. Mieszowski.  Out of all the reporters who have covered FEN, she is the only one to have contacted suicide prevention organizations for comment – or at least the first one who has gotten a reply. 

My advice to Lanny Berman and David Paisley: Start learning more about FEN.  This isn’t about a “mixed message” or hitting the wrong target audience.  Here’s a quote from a message left by FEN board member Bob Levine on the article on the Arizona case linked above:

We think every adult, mentally competent person has the right to end their life on their own terms. We think it is an inherent human right. The prosecutor obviously does not believe this and because of his beliefs he is using his police powers to do so.

Well, there’s also the issue of the family complaining to police about the death of the Arizona woman, which they viewed as a tragedy rather than an exercise of her rights.  The police are concerned with several activities of FEN they allege – removing the helium tank and mask after death and generally cleaning the scene, reducing the ambiguity the woman felt about actually commiting suicide, and the suggestion that they might have held her hands to prevent her “accidentally” removing the plastic bag off her face.

In any case, Levine didn’t really mean “every adult” – it’s pretty clear that a person has to be old, ill or disabled to be considered by them.

The question I have is this:

Is this the first word from suicide prevention organizations on this matter – or is it the last one?  In other words, will they finally break their silence and actually act like the lives of old, ill and disabled people matter to them?  Or will they retreat into their previous silence – and abandonment – of this group of people?

Many of us would like to know.  –Stephen Drake