Suicide prevention and the John Beech dilemma

The photo at right was taken by Lakewood police when they entered John Beech's home last August 1. It shows the 53-year-old retired Coors manager's will, keys, car titles and other important documents all neatly arranged on a kitchen table and waiting for someone to process after his body is discovered in the back yard. Beech gave almost no clues about his suicide plan to his family, but he left an odd package with strangers, including a $100,000 check, two weeks before he killed himself -- the subject of this week's cover story, "The Giveaway."

Writing about suicide is one of the more peculiar taboos in the media business. Most mainstream newspapers and TV stations avoid the subject almost entirely, unless the suicide in question was a prominent figure or the act itself was done in a very public way. Some researchers contend that stories about suicide, especially those that romanticize the subject or provide lurid details of the method involved, merely encourage copycats looking for attention. John Beech, though, wasn't looking for attention but a way out -- and his death raises some interesting questions about our reluctance to get involved when people are showing signs of suicidal thinking.

While I was researching this story, I brought up a scenario like the one that confronted officials at Laradon Hall, the nonprofit that received Beech's odd package, with a variety of people. Suppose somebody you didn't know left you a copy of his will, a big check, and instructions not to do anything until you hear from the coroner. What would you do?

The answers were not what I expected.

A surprising number of "experts" -- lawyers, mostly -- said that they would do nothing. One said he wouldn't even open the package, since the instructions said to wait until the coroner called. Another talked about honoring the decedent's wishes, as if suicide was a lifestyle choice, like your choice of footwear or toothpaste.

One physician, who deals frequently with people who have terminal illnesses -- and has, I believe, always respected a patient's decision to end treatment -- told me he would personally go to the man's house and check on his welfare.

Other views fell somewhere between these two extremes, but not far from either one. A similar debate seems to be emerging in the comments section of the Beech story. Alll of which shows we are not in agreement about how to respond when someone starts giving off goodbye-cruel-world signals, particularly if it's someone we don't know very well.

Some suicides may be inevitable. But psychologists say many acts of self-destruction can be prevented, if people simply took more notice of what's going on with their friends and neighbors. We're rarely that giving, and that makes the Beech story a particularly revealing one -- about how strange and startling acts of generosity like his deserve a closer look.

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