What’s the message?

Wright State professor Dr. Cheryl Meyer explores suicide note motivations

Photo: Wright State’s Dr. Cheryl Meyer with her book “Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations and What Notes Reveal”

By Jim Hannah

The last words of nearly 200 souls are snugged inside a crimson accordion folder on a bedroom floor in the home of Wright State University pyschology
professor Dr. Cheryl Meyer.

The suicide notes are the basis of a new book co-written by Meyer designed to unlock the mysteries of what pushes people to kill themselves, bring comfort to those touched by suicide, and offer ways to prevent it.

“Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Reveal” is written by Meyer; Taronish Irani, of The Counseling Center at SUNY Buffalo State and a Wright State alumna; Katherine Hermes, from the history department at Central Connecticut University; and the late Betty Yung, who was an associate professor of psychology at Wright State.

“I don’t know anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by suicide on some level,” Meyer says, who teaches in the School of Professional Psychology. “We really felt like we could make sense of this and maybe help some people. I just want to bring some understanding to suicide or even open a dialogue.”

Suicide deaths have increased astronomically since 1999. As many as 40,000 people kill themselves each year in the United States.

The suicide notes and files of 1,280 suicide victims who died in Montgomery or surrounding counties were turned over to Wright State in 2010 by Ken Betz, director of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab, and Lee Lehman and Sheri May of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. The trio, who had been collecting the notes since 2000, wanted to know what more could be done to prevent suicides.

Of the 1,280 cases, 14 percent of the victims wrote suicide notes. Meyer read the notes before looking at any of the statistics and instantly knew it was a book.

Many of the notes were written on paper, but others had to be captured by photographs because they were written on towels, mirrors, Christmas cards, coffee filters and even on the victims’ bodies. One man spray-painted a suicide note on the floor of a barn.

The victims killed themselves with guns, drugs, carbon monoxide, and by hanging, drowning, and slashing their wrists. Their bodies were found in homes, garages, a barn, a cemetery, a fraternity house, jail cells, a storage unit, a park, an island, the back of a van, and hanging from trees.

Blood spatter stained some of the notes, making them difficult to read. Notes from victims who had been taking drugs became incoherent toward the end.

The notes often addressed a specific person. Others were addressed to no one in particular. One person addressed the note to his dog.

“If they had a note, I really felt that I got to know them,” Meyer says. “Going back and reading a note is kind of like visiting an old friend.”

Meyer said it is hard to know why some people leave suicide notes and others don’t.

“It comes down to what the motivation was for the suicide,” she says.

She said some notes are designed to lash out and accuse others of not caring, or to control and manipulate by making them feel guilty. Other notes simply say goodbye to loved ones or absolve them of any guilt.

Of the local note-writers, 70 percent said they committed suicide to escape painful life circumstances such as physical or psychological illness.

“I can’t work and Social Security doesn’t pay enoug (sic) to live on. Ever (sic) day is the same — just looking at a TV scene — watching fantasy and make believe — or seeing other people live an active-fun and fulfilling life with family and friends.”

Conflict in interpersonal relationships accounted for 23 percent of the suicides among note-writers, with many notes referring to unrequited or lost love.

Twenty-two percent of notes mentioned precipitating events that drove the writers to commit suicide. Usually these were significant events such as the loss of a job, a distressing medical diagnosis, a financial crisis, a breakup with a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, or an arrest or impending jail sentence.

“We looked at the connections between legal issues and suicide,” Meyer says. “There is a really strong tie between things like DUIs and killing yourself.”

Many notes were written to reassure survivors that the suicide was not their fault and that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Writers of these notes often apologized for the pain that would be caused by their loved one finding them.

The book on suicide looks at it through psychological, historical, and social science lenses. Meyer says people are generally afraid to talk about suicide and that she hopes the book makes them more comfortable speaking with someone who might be suicidal. Suicides are both impulsive and planned, but it only takes a minute, or even a small act or reminder to interrupt one, she says.

A major theme of the book is how to prevent suicide by building resiliency among potential victims, enabling them to better deal with life’s setbacks. Meyer says the best way to do that is to make sure they have social connections and a sense of purpose in life.

“Part of it is the responsibility of the individual, but part of it is our responsibility of keeping that person connected,” she says.

Meyer says a national agenda or an action plan for suicide prevention needs to be established. Communities must promote and foster social support systems, healthy lifestyles, and the full use of people’s skills and gifts.

“As I sit here in this empty house I realize I am all alone. I don’t have anybody. Nobody loves me; Nobody cares about me. I love you all but you don’t love me.”

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Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

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