Thursday, April 23, 2009


I wrote about suicide a couple of years ago when a 12-year-old named Mariannet Amper of Davao City took her own life (“Suicide has no heroes”, Nov. 15, 2007). Poverty was initially thought to be the main reason for her suicide. The distraught and poverty-stricken family had to deal with the media frenzy and the blame game that attended the tragedy. Mariannet became a poster girl for poverty.

As it turned out, and as the psychotherapists later discovered, the reason the girl killed herself was not as simple as it appeared and poverty was not all there was. Suicide is more complicated than most people think it to be.

Although the incidence of suicide in the Philippines is not as high as those in developed countries, this country has had its share of high-profile cases. The latest is the case of Trinidad “Trina” Arteche Etong, wife of popular broadcaster Ted Failon (Etong). It’s been fairly established that Trina did shot herself but people will not forget the excessive force as caught on camera (thank the media for that!) that the Quezon City police applied on Failon and the Etongs and Arteches while investigating.

Here’s my one-liner for those excessive cops: ‘Di lang kayo pulis patola, pulis mabangis pa.

There is no doubt that public sympathy is on the side of Failon and his family. The focus continues to be on Failon and the household staff whom the police continue to pin down with charges of “obstruction of justice” because of the clean-up that was done on the death scene. But that is whodunit story that continues to play.

The other story is Trina. What was the alleged failed financial engagement that drove her to despair and caused her to choose ending her life rather than bring it all up before her husband? As her alleged note intimated, she could not face up to it. What was the extent of the failure? But more important is the question, was Trina the depressive type that death indeed the more “courageous” option for her?

People would now say that the weight of the consequences of her tragic passing on her family far exceeds her fears over her failed financial transactions. But in suicide you do not blame the victim because you do not know the person’s mental and psychological state. And you do not blame the surviving significant others. In Trina’s case, she blamed no one.

Because of the media attention and the public interest on the case, I hope Trina’s family would later disclose what exactly it was that caused her to become despondent. It could be instructive for those who engage in not-so-ordinary financial transactions. What are the pitfalls, what are the warning signs, what are the danger zones in such operations? And it would be good for her family to know who drew her into it. And was that all there was?

There are two books on suicide that could help those who are trying to cope with the aftermath of suicide. One is “Survivors of Suicide” by Rita Robinson, an award-winning journalist specializing in health and psychology. It draws from the experiences of the survivors and the bereaved, as well as those of scientific experts, therapists and law enforcers.

Robinson lists 17 suicide myths. Among them are: that people who threaten to kill themselves don’t really mean it; that there is no forewarning; that one shouldn’t confront the person who is suicidal; that those who commit suicide are insane; that suicidal people want nothing more than to die; that it runs in families.

Who commits suicide? How does clinical depression lead to suicide? How does the brain react to depression? The blame game is tackled too. It is thought for those who are mentioned in suicide notes, especially if they are young. It is important for survivors not to assign or accept blame.

There is this other book—“The Savage God: A Study of Suicide” by A. Alvarez—that I bought after a friend’s youngest daughter who was all of 18 killed herself by drinking muriatic acid. Theirs was a regular family, and then she had a spat with an older brother. What that all there was to it?

Alvarez’s book is more compelling, more compassionate and broadly cultural and literary. It is rooted in personal experience and begins with a long chapter on poet Sylvia Plath and ends with the author’s account of his own failed suicide attempt. From the blurb: “Within this dramatic framework, Alvarez launches his enquiry into the final taboo of human behavior, and traces changing attitudes towards suicide from the perspective of literature. He follows the black threat leading from Dante through Donne and the romantic agony, to the Savage God at the heart of modern literature.”

Health institutions like the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. have come up with guidelines especially for schools. Here are some. It is important to stress that suicide is the result of a dysfunctional behavior by a troubled personality. Reduce the identification with the actions of the deceased, and reaffirm that it was the fault (decision) of the person who committed suicide and not someone else. Don’t glorify the death or prolong praises and tributes for the diseased. Teenagers could get ideas, you know.

Here are media guidelines from CDC: Reporting should be concise and factual. Excessive or sensational reporting can lead to contagion. (Think of the suicidal who keep using the giant billboards as their launching pad.) Reporting technical aspects of the suicide is not necessary. Suicide should not be presented as an effective coping strategy. Suicide should not be glorified. Expressions of grief such as public eulogies and public memorials should be minimized.

My prayers for strength for Ted Failon’s family.