HARRISBURG, Pa. — Fighting back tears, her voice cracking, Jackie Bieber had a simple message for anyone who’s thinking about taking their own life:
“There is always life,” she said. “There is always hope.”
In May, Bieber’s 25-year-old daughter, Shawn Shatto – apparently egged on by a ghoulish online community that provided her with step-by-step instructions on how to kill herself – died by suicide in York County, about 40 minutes south of Harrisburg.
And when she hesitated, when she had second thoughts, they pushed her to follow through, telling her death was the only escape.
“Disgusting. Appalling. Unacceptable.” Jackie Bieber barked out the words. Her husband, Chip Bieber, holding a framed photo of their daughter, stood at his wife’s side in the state Capitol rotunda.
Appalling? That doesn’t even begin to cover it.
There’s no collection of adjectives that adequately captures the trauma of losing a child – especially when, as the Biebers believe, anonymous faces lurking online steered Shawn Shatto on her tragic course. The case remains under investigation, authorities said.
This week, Pa. state Rep. Dawn Keefer rolled out legislation that she hopes will prevent such future tragedies. She’s calling it “Shawn’s Law.”
If it’s eventually approved by the full Legislature, and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the proposal would allow prosecutors to impose additional penalties on those who encourage or instruct others on how to take their own lives.
Right now, the state punishes such offenses, depending on their severity, with a second-degree misdemeanor or a second-degree felony. The former carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and $5,000 in fines; the latter is punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Keefer’s bill would increase penalties in cases where the victim is aged 18 or younger or suffers from an intellectual disability.
Just days earlier, in the same spot in the Capitol rotunda, anti-gun violence advocates and their legislative allies, called on lawmakers to pass extreme risk protection orders, which they are say are a critical tool in preventing gun suicides.
Both events come as Pennsylvania – and the rest of the nation – observes Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
And while it seems cliche to say it, it bears repeating: It’s not enough to have just a month devoted to suicide prevention. This is a discussion we should be having every day, around our dinner tables, in our school classrooms, our church, mosque and synagogue meeting rooms, or even around the office watercooler.
In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, data shows. About half of those deaths were by firearms. Think about that number for a minute: That’s an American small town’s worth of people getting wiped out every year.
During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” this week, Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., spoke movingly of the need to allocate more resources to mental health treatment and suicide prevention. Earlier this year, Wild’s partner, Kerry Acker, died by suicide.
“Every community in our country has been touched in some way by major mental health challenges,” Wild said during in June during an emotional speech on the floor of the House. “Removing the stigma cannot just be a slogan. We need to make it real through our actions.”
Shawn Shatto’s death, along with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others across Pennsylvania and the nation, is vivid evidence that suicide spares no one – regardless of class, race, education, or income.
It also matters how we talk about the issue, the language we use to describe it, by not saying someone “committed suicide,” which implies criminality, but “died by suicide,” which helps lift the stigma associated with the act.
That’s also the aim of a resolution, sponsored by Pennsylvania state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, that cleared a state House committee this week. Her father, a firefighter, died by gun suicide when she was 13.
All of that’s important. Keefer’s bill and O’Mara’s resolution are critical. But so are the little steps.
That’s reaching out a hand to those who are in pain, those who are struggling, those who are feeling the pull of the shadows, and reminding them that they’re never, ever alone.
That we remind them, as Jackie Bieber said, that there is always life. There is always hope.
Copyright 2019 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.