Guest opinion

We've lost another kid" are words I'd just as soon never use again. They've become an all-too-familiar part of my vocabulary in recent months as an appalling number of teenagers and young adults in Pacific and Clatsop counties have killed themselves or died under suspicious circumstances. Only one such death would have been infinitely too many; each additional one is a sledge hammer to our fragile consciences and community well-being.

Suicide and other forms of self-destructive behavior are terrifyingly commonplace among mature adults and senior citizens as well, here and elsewhere. Aside from the overt suicides we all secretly acknowledge, what else are chronic alcohol or drug abuse but long, torturous forms of suicide?

There's no real beginning or end to this chain of dismal death, and I've spoken with people who don't even consider it all that remarkable, only a hastening of what inevitably faces us all. It certainly is this attitude, coupled with untreated depression, that accounts for the premature deaths of uncounted multitudes of senior citizens who might otherwise have lived years longer.

With the possible exception of the terminally ill, I don't accept that suicide is ever the right choice for the person involved, the victims left behind or our communities. Only people who have never been brushed by it, or are deeply in denial, could believe otherwise. I don't want to arouse the stigma that once saw suicides buried at midnight in unhallowed ground - they are, in a real sense, victims themselves - but I also don't absolve them of responsibility. There is no bigger bomb that can be set off in a family.

Suicide reverberates down through time like radioactive waste, killing or damaging what it touches. There was a talented, charismatic family I once knew - the father was state Democratic chairman. He killed himself. Shortly later, his oldest son was next. A few years later, his youngest. It's probable all three suffered from clinical depression, a highly treatable chemical imbalance in their brains. And they were all problem drinkers. But I'll always believe there was a distinct element of contagion involved. If daddy had held it together, his well-loved sons would be alive today. What an awful waste.

Less dramatically, my own family has been deeply etched by suicide. After his mom drank rat poison following the dust bowl-era failure of their dry-land wheat farm in Roundup, Mont., my grandfather was plunged into a deep well of pain from which it took years to emerge. Every life eventually is sculpted by grief, and Grandpa and his siblings went on to lead long and fairly successful lives - in the case of a sister, spectacularly successful. But there was nothing natural about the price they all paid for their Mom's deliberate act.

I was a teenager when Granduncle Parley, my grandmother's brother, killed himself. He was one of my favorite relations, probably a favorite relation of every family member who knew him. He wasn't an extravagant gift-bringing kind of uncle, but his presence was itself a present. He was a solid, gentle man with a profound but low-key sense of humor, like Mark Twain on a slow day. Grandma was 85 when he died at age 69, and she certainly had seen plenty of death, but her tears were every bit as hot as they would have been if he had died at 17 or 47.

None of us guessed Parley's despair until he removed himself from the world, though of course in retrospect we tortured ourselves with half-glimpsed signs that something about his life wasn't quite what it seemed. As for Grandpa's mom, I never knew her, but see a horrible, yawning cavern of dismay in her pinched eyes in photographs taken decades before the event.

I know the seductive power of sadness and doom, rolling them around in my mind like acid-filled marbles, and I'd be lying if I said suicide has never crossed that mind - it has, though not since my mid-20s. I somehow skated over the top of those evil times, but it wasn't until recently that I sought treatment for depression. I'm feeling better and sleeping better than I have in years. Give it a try.

Depression's an awfully sneaky bastard. It's easy to confuse it for something else, to think feeling lousy is bound up with growing up. It isn't.

You can't live somebody's life for them, but if you suspect your spouse, child, parent or other loved one is depressed for more than a couple weeks, you need to do what you can to get them some help. They probably won't want it, but you've got to try to make them want it. Although it's often hard to spot, depression is common among teenagers and even younger children, and it's our responsibility as parents or caregivers to get it treated, just as we would any other illness.

Who knows - troubled people sometimes will kill themselves anyway - but don't let it happen without a struggle.

Matt Winters is editor and publisher of the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Wash.

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