A Walmart electric cart sits idle near the tree where a woman’s body was found hanging near a Walmart at 6149 Old National Highway in South Fulton early Monday May, 14, 2018. A police investigation determined the woman killed herself. South Fulton police continue to investigate the incident. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Public suicides traumatize communities, leave unanswered questions

It isn’t a topic that often makes headlines. But suicide is a health problem that continues to plague people in the United States, where it is the 10th-leading cause of death, and in Georgia, where suicide rates have climbed during the past 10 years.

Suicide devastates families and communities on a daily basis. In metro Atlanta, two suicides in less than three weeks have had a horrible distinction: They’ve happened in public.

Early Monday, a woman was found hanging from a tree outside a Walmart in South Fulton. Late last month, a man hanged himself from a bridge over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Investigators believe both deaths were suicides.

“It takes on a different feel because it then impacts so many people,” Nadine Kaslow, Emory University professor of clinical psychology, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It ends up that so many people are traumatized and impacted by the death by suicide. It takes on a community feel.”

When others in the public see a suicide victim, it’s a difficult image to erase, Kaslow said. There are generally few answers to why someone may attempt suicide in a public setting, she said.

“It’s a way to show people their pain,” Kaslow said. “Sometimes, people want to punish other people. Other times, there’s a sub-group of people that this is how they get noted. For some people, it’s almost like a legacy.”

In 2016, Georgia had a suicide rate of 13.27 per 100,000 people, ranking the state 34th among all suicides nationally, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Among Georgians ages 25 to 34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, and nearly twice as many in Georgia die from suicide than homicide, the agency reported.

Additionally, data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 1,317 people died from suicide in Georgia in 2015. Suicides among teenagers in Georgia peaked in 2015 and 2016 before a slight decline in 2017, according to numbers provided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Rarely are suicides reported in The AJC and other media outlets because of the sensitive nature — unless they’re in public settings. In those cases, the deaths often spark a great deal of interest and speculation.

“We try to find explanations,” Kaslow said.

In July 2016, the discovery of a man found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park led to a social media outcry, including people calling the death a modern-day lynching. The case was referred to the FBI, and then-Mayor Kasim Reed promised a thorough investigation.

“This disturbing event demands our full attention,” Reed said after the man’s death. “The Atlanta Police Department is conducting a robust investigation into his death, and I have asked to receive regular briefings on the status of the investigation.”

An autopsy by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the cause of death was asphyxiation by hanging and the manner of death was suicide.

In March, a Paulding County teenager was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound along the side of the road. Students on school buses likely saw the body as the bus drove by, according to Sgt. Ashley Henson with the Paulding Sheriff’s Office. Rumors spread quickly about how the 15-year-old died, prompting investigators to release additional information to the public.

“Contrary to some false reports, the victim’s hands were not bound behind his back,” Henson said.

The suicide rate of U.S. teens has risen with social media. A new analysis says the two may be linked. The effect is especially pronounced for teen girls. In 2015, 36% of teens reported feeling desperately sad or hopeless, up 4% from 2009.

Regarding Monday’s discovery of the woman found hanging from a tree outside the Walmart on Old National Highway, investigators said there were no signs of foul play. The woman did not have identification and her name was not available late Monday, according to the Fulton medical examiner.

In addition to the thousands of suicides committed each year, countless other individuals consider it or attempt it, according to the CDC. And while women attempt suicide more often, Kaslow said, men are more likely to succeed in the effort.

But suicides can be prevented, experts say.

“I don’t think people kill themselves to get attention,” Kaslow said. “I think they’re feeling hopeless, as though there’s not enough reason to live.”

Anyone who is considering suicide, or knows someone in this type of crisis, should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or online www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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