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The letter to the editor marked the end of the story, the end of a life.

But other stories have yet to be written. And we can help write other endings.

I was struck — and I know many of you were as well — by the April 17 letter to the editor from Patrick Kearns of Corvallis. (The full letter is included in the online version of this column.)

In the letter, Kearns talks about the death by suicide of a coworker, a 19-year-old man named Sean Morgan. Here's how the letter began:

"I wanted to take an obituary for my friend Sean Morgan, who took his own life on April 10, but I couldn't. I didn't have any photos of him. I didn't know the day he was born."

The letter ends with a note to Morgan and then a plea to the living: "We didn't know you needed the love you did, or else we would have given it to you. If you are willing to hold a gun to your head, please talk to someone. You are loved more than you know, I promise you. Please keep living."

I was curious about the letter and contacted Kearns, who told me that he and Morgan worked together at a Corvallis fast-food restaurant. Morgan came to Corvallis after a girlfriend started studies at Oregon State University but was not a student himself.

At work, Kearns said, Morgan was "just a well-loved kid," and the letter describes him as "a big man who filled the entire room, laughing with his whole body loudly and often."

Then the relationship with the girlfriend ended, and his coworkers noted a change in Morgan's demeanor. "There were signs we saw belatedly afterward," Kearns told me. At one point, Morgan expressed the thought that he probably could use therapy, but didn't think he could afford it.

In a state where about 90 people under the age of 25 die of suicide every year, there are elements in Morgan's story that are distressingly familiar. 

But these still are difficult subjects to talk about — and they can be excruciatingly difficult to raise in situations like this one.

In fact, the kind of second-guessing that Kearns and his coworkers are enduring is common, said Ann Kirkwood, the state's youth suicide intervention coordinator with the Oregon Health Authority. "It's difficult to lose even an acquaintance to suicide," she said. 

So, on behalf of Kearns and the hundreds of people who may be in a similar position this year, I asked Kirkwood how people should handle a situation in which they suspect a friend or acquaintance may be considering suicide.

Kirkwood said the best approach is the direct one. Ask the question: "Are you thinking of suicide?" 

Kirkwood said the question "will not put the thought (of suicide) in their heads," and in fact may offer relief to the person being questioned. 

The next step, Kirkwood said, is to share this phone number: 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). That's the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Kirkwood said calls to the line made in Oregon are answered in Oregon, by people who can access suicide-prevention resources. The people who handle the calls also are trained in techniques to immediately de-escalate a crisis situation. (Kirkwood noted that people who are worried about others also can call the lifeline.)

Other services are available to people in Morgan's situation, Kirkwood added: Low-income Oregon residents likely are eligible for services through the Oregon Health Plan, for example. Although Oregon suffers from a shortage of behavioral health specialists, people in crisis can receive immediate attention from county health departments. If people are feeling suicidal, Kirkwood said, help is always available at emergency rooms, where medical staffers can arrange for referrals. 

Even with all that, though, Kirkwood acknowledged how hard it can be even for people with plenty of training to find the courage to ask the question about suicide.  "You need to be prepared that the person will reject it," she said.

But, many times, that is not the result: "Most people, when you ask that question, will tell you the truth. They may have been hiding this for quite some time. It's a relief."

When the answer is "yes," be sure you have the lifeline phone number handy. 

Kirkwood expressed sympathy and admiration for Kearns: "Your letter writer is asking all the right questions," she said. "I think it's another opportunity to remember that we all have a role in preventing suicide." (mm)

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Managing Editor