Paula Cooper

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Paula Cooper arrest  (1986)
Paula Cooper arrest (1986)

I was saddened this weekend to read of the suicide of Paula Cooper.

I mostly knew her through news stories. Then I heard about her when visiting another young woman who was friendly with Paula. Both were housed at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

To be sure, Paula was at the prison for a serious crime. At 15, she and friends skipped classes at their Gary, Indiana, school, and showed up on the doorstep of nearby 78-year-old Ruth Pelke.

The girls told Mrs. Pelke they were interested in Bible lessons and on that pretext, she invited them into her home.

In reality, the girls, probably high on marijuana, meant to rob this kindly elderly woman. For some unknown reason, Paula went to the kitchen and retrieved a butcher knife.

She then stabbed Mrs. Pelke 33 times. The girls searched the house and found only $10. They took her car keys and went for a joy ride in the lady’s old Plymouth. This was 1986.

I got involved because Paula was first sentenced to die for the crime. I wrote editorials decrying the death sentence. I noted that growing up, the girl had been frequently beaten and suffered from severe depression.

I don’t recall how the pope became involved. But he also pleaded for clemency. Indeed, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the death sentence. That was in 1989. But that’s far from the whole story.

Paula not only became a model prisoner. She earned her bachelor’s degree. She trained assistance dogs. She tutored inmates and ran the prison kitchen.

With time off for good behavior, she was released from prison a couple of years ago. She had tried to make amends for her crime. Mrs. Pelke’s grandson Bill took up the anti-death penalty cause launching the “Journey of Hope.”

I got acquainted with Bill when he brought his program to Fort Wayne. He had long since forgiven Paula for killing his grandmother. But out women’s prison and free, she took her own life.

She had so much to give. She had so much to live for. Forgiven by others, she couldn’t forgive herself.

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Where gay kids hurt

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Let me be clear:  No gay or lesbian kid should be bullied, harassed or made to feel disrespected and rejected.   No gay or lesbian kid.  None, period.

Yet rejection is the very thing that seems to be the experience of gay and lesbian teenagers in the most politically conservative communities.  What other explanation can you offer for the finding of Columbia University researchers of the high incidence of suicide attempts in such Oregon counties?

The researchers surveyed about 32,000 high school students throughout that state.  Here’s what those kids told them.   In mostly Republican conservative counties, where few Democrats live, about 20 percent of gay and lesbian kids said they had attempted suicide at least once.

At the same time, only 4 percent of straight kids in these communities reported making a suicide attempt.    Which would be the story for gay and straight kids in mainly Democratic counties.

You can read all about it in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Thank goodness, my son, who is straight,  survived four suicide attempts as a teenager.   So our family has had some experience in the trauma of an attempt.   Such events cast a shadow over our family for years.  It’s hard to imagine what losing a child to suicide would do to one’s sense of personal security.  When would you stop grieving?

The Columbia researchers note that the suicide attempts for the gay and lesbian kids in the study occurred whether or not they were bullied or depressed.

In conservative communities, you’re not likely to find school programs that support gay and lesbian kids.  In more progressive communities, such programs are common.  Further, those kids will find support in the mainline churches.  Straight kids here will befriend them, take their side and be their advocate.

Our granddaughter, a university student, has one gay friend whose family lives in a conservative town north of our city.  He fears to tell his parents.  He believes that if he told them that he’s gay, they would be devastated. Maybe even reject him.

Where does such prejudice come from?  What does a rejection of anyone on the basis of sexual orientation have to do with politics? What does it have to do with religion?

Clearly, many young gay and lesbian people internalize the bigotry they hear voiced at the dinner table, from the pulpit and from the most conservative politicians.  Growing up amid the expression of such self-righteous and ignorant attitudes becomes a burden no child should have to bear.

How is it that you don’t find such bigotry directed toward adulterers or those who divorce? I point out that such things seem to be condemned in sacred texts.

Oddly enough, the same holy scriptures that are interpreted  to condemn deviations from the sexual norm also condemn those who would judge others.  Instead, these scriptures call upon us to love and accept everyone.

Homophobia seems to be a special, even unique form of bigotry.   And like most all prejudices, it can have terrible, tragic consequences.  The Columbia University study merely tells us where you’re most likely to find it.

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This tragedy keeps on giving

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Lincoln started it.

The soldier might have been shot to death by the enemy.

He might have died when a bridge he was building trapped him underwater.

Or, the soldier might killed himself.

It didn’t matter.  The cause of death didn’t matter.  Under Lincoln’s signature, the soldier’s family got a letter of condolence.  It expressed the president’s sorrow at the family’s loss.  And gratitude for the person’s service.

Presidents after Lincoln followed his practice.  Until President Clinton.  Somehow, the people at the Pentagon then decided the families whose service member committed suicide didn’t hear from the Commander-In-Chief or any expression of sorrow or thanks.

Just recently, one family spoke up.  Their son fighting in Iraq took his own life.  He’d been deployed several times and had seen lots of action.  In his last call home, he tried to explain how distressed he had been.  But his dad, not fully comprehending the son was on the edge, admonished the boy to “be a man.”   Hours after that phone call the son shot himself to death in the latrine.

The front-page story appeared in the Thanksgiving Day edition of The New York Times.

I suppose publication of treating a service suicide as not a death to be honored will prompt the Pentagon to change policy.  From now on, I expect to see  a letter of presidential condolence will be sent to families whose service member killed him or herself.

It’s yet another reason we need news reporters, to see that outrages such as this get publicly aired and ended.  Yet the revelation comes at an awkward time for the  the military.  Recently, it’s been trying to de-stigmatize mental illness.

Treating suicide as an exception by the military reflects public attitudes.  A former student of my daughter’s recently killed himself.   Another teacher protested, “How selfish!”

It’s cruel to judge.  Moreover, it’s likely to be wrong about the person’s reasons for taking his or her own life.    For those nearly 140  soldiers who committed suicide last year, and almost that many in 2009, civilians can only guess at the horrors these young people have seen in battle.

What I’m reasonably sure of is that the person has become terribly distressed and sees no other way out of the psychic pain.  To be sure, suicide is a tragedy.   But it is not a dishonor.   And if it’s a soldier,  a presidential letter of condolence to the family seems totally in order.

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Great therapy on the cheap

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I still get depressed.

Not every day.  Not every week.  Not even every month.

In fact, I haven’t visited a therapist in ages.  I don’t take anti-depressants.

But I’ve found the secret to beating depression.   Cheaper than pills.  Lots cheaper than a trip to the therapist.

I jog.  About four days a week, starting out about 7 a.m. I head for our nearby part and cover a little more than four miles.  When I run out of breath, I walk.  And you know what?  When I get back home, any worry, any inkling of depression has melted away.

I was reminded of how I handle depression when I saw the recent New York Times article titled, “Getting mental health care when money is tight.”

Given the current economic climate,  the piece was particularly addressed to persons who had lost their job or feared losing their job.

But the tips could very well help anybody struggling with occasional depression or anxiety.  Even if you’re depression is major, simple things like exercising or finding a support group can help get you moving toward professional help.

Most members of the clergy have been trained to listen to troubled souls.  Pastors and rabbis should spot major problems and connect you with the right professional.

You can talk with your family doctor.  The caveat here is that many medical doctors aren’t very good at diagnosing a mental illness.  Nevertheless, a conversation might well open the door.

If cost truly is an issue, you should know that most people who don’t get help for a mental health problem avoid it because of what they expect to be the cost.  Until recently, health insurance hasn’t been very good about covering such problems.

I should also mention that most communities have agencies, such as Mental Health America and a community mental health center, that can direct you to help – often at minimal cost or even no cost.

Another way to make the connection is by calling the national suicide prevention hotline.  Most of their calls aren’t from persons threatening suicide.  And the persons answering the calls are trained to direct you to somebody who can help.

That number is 1-800-273-TALK.

Through the years, jogging has spared me much heartache.   Meantime, on those many outings, I’ve solved problems, planned books and kept myself in excellent health for a person in his 70s.

You might say I’m a believer.

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Nov. 18: suicide prevention

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Maybe it’s because we nearly lost my son at age 16 to suicide.  How lucky we were.

Stories about the high rate of suicide among soldiers hit home. By the end of  2008, it was 140 active duty men and women.  By mid-November this year, it’s 140, though the Pentagon reports the rate has slowed. Then this week our granddaughter got word that a high school classmate, an honors student, and a former Spanish student of my daughter, killed himself at college.

No doubt, we’ll be talking about the suicide rate in the military at Friday’s meeting of our county’s Suicide Prevention Council. I well remember encouraging our coroner to organize just such a group.  I wrote editorials praising him when he followed through. But it was only the sort of response that Surgeon General David Satcher had called for that year.  Then, retired from the paper, I joined the council, now composed of physicians, a sheriff’s deputy, counselors and advocates.  Our most public event featured Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” telling his story of depression and thoughts of suicide to an audience of 700 people at Indiana Purdue University.

But for all the meetings and the efforts to train people on suicide prevention, our suicide rate hasn’t changed much.  On any given year, we lose about 30 people, of various ages, to suicide.  That works out to the national average of 10 per 100,000.   That’s more than some countries, fewer than others.

We naturally assume that the recent horrors of combat explains the current high rate within the army.  But the rate is higher among long-time veterans than the civilian population.  

A few years ago, the air force was able to cut that service’s suiciderate, nearly in half.  The psychiatrist who designed the program told me that the main feature was to train officers who managed the airmen and women.  The officers were educated to know when those serving under them were having emotional problems, depression, anxiety and so forth.

By extension, it’s always seemed that training managers and teachersin civilian life along the same lines help avert tragedy.  The watchword is to identify the problems, then see that the person suffering getsprofessional help.

The side benefit is that the more people who are trained in suicide prevention, the better we can combat the stigma. Every community should tackle suicide as a major public health issue, just as we’ve attempted to do in Fort Wayne.   I’ve interviewed a number of family members whose loved ones have committed suicide.  They never comprehend it.  They never really get over it.  I want to say that a suicide always has more than one victim.  

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