My living room is mostly about family. There are paintings by my grandfather and sister on the walls, kiln-fired art projects from the kids on the bookshelf, and sepia photographs of assorted ancestors on picture ledges.
There is one non-family member among these pictures. His presence is no accident.
In that photograph, a younger and thinner version of me stands with my friend Pete in a Pennsylvania newsroom. Above and behind us hangs a banner that reads, “Why is this happening?”
The banner was one of a series that were displayed during some newsroom initiative reminding us to answer basic questions in our stories. Being a cynical bunch, we reporters found humor in assigning them unintended meanings. When a third reporter snapped the picture of Pete and me shortly before I left Harrisburg for The Dispatch, I’m sure it was by design that the banner was within frame.
The banner was still there when I returned to Harrisburg for Pete’s memorial service three years later.
Why is this happening? I wanted to tear it down.
Pete Shellem, a courts reporter who specialized in ferreting out and exposing wrongful convictions, killed himself on Oct. 24, 2009. He was an awesome father and husband, a tremendous journalist and my honest-to-God hero. I loved him like a brother.
I rarely share Pete’s story, although I am reminded of him constantly. I keep his obituary, which ran in The New York Times, at my desk, right beside pictures of my children.
I don’t often talk about Pete even with people who also knew him, or who have lost their loved ones to suicide. I tell myself that to talk about Pete feels indulgent; I was just a friend, and it is ancient history.
The truth is closer to this: I avoid talking about Pete because it still hurts as keenly as it did on the morning my wife called me almost seven years ago, screaming into the phone.
I am inspired by people like Ed Shoener, whom I featured in my Sunday column. Ed’s 29-year-old daughter, Katie, died by suicide this month on the Far North Side. The obituary her father wrote, in which he explained that Katie had bipolar disorder but that it did not define her, has drawn responses and thanks from people around the world with similar experiences.
I’m equally inspired by the volunteers who answer the phones at suicide hotlines. Dispatch Reporter Mike Wagner wrote in Monday’s edition about the hotlines and their need for more volunteers.
I went looking for answers after Pete’s death. That’s what reporters do. I found a few, but they did little to address the complexities that surround suicide.
The same complexities are illuminated by Katie’s story. She had moved to central Ohio several years ago to earn her MBA at Ohio State University, which she did in 2015. Katie followed her treatment plans and medication regimen religiously. She talked about her illness with loved ones. She had friends and family who supported her. She did not want to die, her father said.
“Everyone that Katie encountered out there, the community and Ohio State, did everything they could do,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that our best isn’t good enough yet. Some day it will be.”
Shoener believes that our mental health system now falls short, but he remains optimistic that research and commitment will change that. He also believes that laypeople can contribute by talking more about mental illness and suicide.
“Society has to come out of the shadows on this,” he said.
You can find a wealth of information, including contacts for suicide hotlines and central Ohio survivor support groups, atsuicidepreventionservices.org.
If you are considering suicide, or someone you know is, call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline, 614-294-3300; or the Lifeline national organization for suicide prevention, 1-800-273-8255.
“You do your best to get them out of that moment,” hotline volunteer Steve LeVert told Wagner. “You help them see that there is hope.”
If you are interested in volunteering, call 614-299-6600, Ext. 2073, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help those in anguish see a future, there’s no time like the present.
Read the Dispatch series on suicide at Dispatch.com/suicide.