Putting a Face on Suicide

by Bill Brenner on September 24, 2012

There’s a page on Facebook everyone should check out called Putting a Face on Suicide. It’s powerful stuff.

Mood music:


Having lost a close friend to suicide, this page hits me where I live. We hear about suicide statistics all the time. We know of the famous suicides, like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Cobain. But regular people die by their own hand every day, and their faces are easily forgotten. That’s what makes this Facebook page so important.

Putting a Face on Suicide is the personal project of Mike Purcell. His son, 21-year-old Christopher Lee Purcell, died by suicide in 2008 while serving in the U.S. Navy. Since then, the father has relentlessly worked to break down the bullshit notions about suicide — that those who take their own lives were simply weak, scared, quitters and the like.

Here’s part of Purcell’s mission statement for the project:

Every 40 seconds somewhere around the world someone dies by suicide, that’s 99 people every 66 minutes. Every day, that’s almost 100 people in the United States alone, and over 2160 worldwide. Putting a Face on Suicide (PAFOS) is a suicide awareness project that creates posters and videos to pay tribute to those we have lost to suicide with dignity and respect. PAFOS humanizes the daunting statistics; lovingly replacing numbers with faces.

PAFOS is an ongoing project soliciting pictures of your loved ones who died by suicide. Its objective is to collect 99 photos of people who have died by suicide for each day of the year; i.e., 36135 faces will represent 365 days of loss by suicide in the United States. PAFOS uses each photo in a poster and a video, posts it on the PAFOS Facebook page, and creates a personal tribute page featuring your loved one.

When you visit the page, the first thing that will strike you is how happy many of these victims looked when the pictures were taken. There are smiling teenagers who had promising futures. There are older people who look content to spend their senior years doting on grandchildren. There are veterans of our most recent wars, looking proud, sober and ready for whatever life throws at them.

Whenever someone dies by their own hand, you hear the inevitable comments that start with but:

“But she had everything going for her.”

“But he was always smiling.”

“But he had a beautiful wife and children, a gorgeous house and a high-paying job. How could he do this?”

Those are natural questions to ask when you first hear the news of a suicide. It’s part of the shock and disbelief we feel.

Yet the questions also show how little we understand the insidious nature of depression. Much of the stigma comes from that religious belief that death by suicide is a trip straight to Hell. It’s not necessarily true, and a friend of mine found this bit of clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Instead of worrying about where in the afterlife our lost friends and family are, we should do what is in our control: remembering the best these souls gave in life and honoring their memories. The Facebook page does that and more.

PAFOS: Peter

PAFOS: Thomas Edward Albright

PAFOS: Paige Rose

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