An Open Letter to the Creators of S-Town
Dear Brian Reed, Julie Snyder, and the production team of S-Town,
First of all, thank you for yet another outstanding podcast series. I found S-Town to be an engaging, emotionally poignant story that challenges stereotypes and evokes critical thought.
At the moment that I was listening, I was traveling the state of California, training hundreds of students in how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and intervene to help save a life. I had no idea how relevant the story of John B. McLemore would be to our organizational mission at Active Minds, a national nonprofit that supports 12,000+ student activists throughout the nation who are changing the conversation about mental health on their campuses, with a specific emphasis on preventing suicide.
I thought a lot about how we may leverage this sudden propulsion of the issue of suicide into the national spotlight towards positive change. I believe that, with effective follow up, the teams at S-Town and This American Life are uniquely positioned to shine a light on the issue of suicide, a dangerously silenced and stigmatized issue.
In my view, S-Town did a phenomenal job of illustrating John B. as a multifaceted person, whose death came on as a result of many composite circumstances. Not only did he seem to have struggled with undiagnosed mental illness, he also lived as a socially progressive, atheist, closeted gay man in rural Alabama. On top of that, he seemed to have experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy, and significant exposure to toxic chemicals.
S-Town also astutely explored the complex implications that John’s death had on the lives around him, which is an under-discussed repercussion of the epidemic of suicide. From Brian Reed’s own shock and confusion with the news, to the deep feelings of grief, anger, and turmoil experienced by Tyler Goodson, John’s out-of-town cousins, John’s mother and friends, and others. Suicide is complex, and it’s important that we steer away from over-simplifying its causes and those impacted.
Where S-Town missed the mark, in my opinion, is in the language used to describe and discuss John B.’s suicide. Not only were we hit with a graphic description of John’s death in Chapter 2 without warning, we also heard innumerable mentions of John having “committed suicide.” Language is both our most accessible tool for change, and our most powerful. It’s important that we change the way that we talk about suicide, shifting it away from the world of crime, stigma, and shame that is evoked with language like “committed suicide” and “killed himself.” Instead, we use the term “died by suicide” or “lost someone to suicide” which re-frames the issue, building a foundation of support and acceptance of people’s very real struggles. Reportingonsuicide.org is a great resource for safely addressing the issue in the media, in order to prevent triggers and suicide contagion or copycats, a very real phenomenon.
In the final moments of the series, Brian reads a few chosen lines from John’s suicide note, including one in which he expresses that his absence will somehow free up resources and room for others. Including these words was a dangerous affirmation of the notion that one’s own death will benefit those around them. To those who heard these words and felt any sense that the world would be better off without you, know that that is not the case. You are not alone.
Lastly, and most importantly, S-Town is faced with a unique opportunity to educate their listeners about the signs of suicide. Throughout the story, we learn that John B. frequently discussed his suicidal thoughts with those around him. He discussed it openly, and made plans accordingly, but few people acknowledged his words as true warning signs of suicidal intent. I bring this up, not in an effort to place blame on any one person involved, but rather to draw attention to the lack of awareness that exists around suicide, as a culture overall. Suicide is an issue that has not yet been fully embraced as a public health concern, and therefore remains widely stigmatized and under-discussed. As the Suicide Prevention Resource Center posits, we all have a role to play in protecting people from suicide. When more of us are able to recognize the signs, and respond, we may be able to get an individual the professional support that they need, and reduce the rate of suicide.
That said, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the unique challenges that a rural area like Bibb County, Alabama faces when it comes to access to local mental health support. For now, we encourage residents of rural areas to utilize national support resources like the Crisis Text Line, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
John B. McLemore was someone who was in tune with, and constantly immersed in, many of the macro ills of the world. Unfortunately, he and many of those who surrounded him were caught completely unaware of one issue that many of us routinely sweep under the rug: the tragedy of suicide. Suicide is a very preventable cause of death, but its prevention relies on widespread knowledge of its risk factors, warning signs, and crisis resources.
I can’t help but think about how John B. himself might have delved into this issue, having had a glimpse into his proclivity towards diligent research, and seeking diverse worldviews. I imagine that he would insist that those around him understood the consequences of their action (and inaction) on the matter. A way that we may mindfully honor John B. McLemore is to let others know that they’re not alone, that help is available, and that there are ways that we may all be working towards the betterment of our overall approach to acknowledging and preventing suicide.
I urge S-Town and This American Life to consider harnessing the opportunity they have to steer the conversation of John B. towards one of raising awareness of suicide, reducing stigma, and helping to avert further tragedy. Thousands of Active Minds students are changing the conversation about mental health every day. We invite you to join us.
Thank you for your consideration,