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Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Official links two
weekend isle suicides
to ‘Olelo video

An Oahu man and woman both
choose suffocation just days after
the station aired 'Final Exit'

By Susan Kreifels


Two depressed people used the same method to kill themselves as described on a controversial guide to committing suicide that was aired on public access television Friday, according to a city medical examiner.

The victims, who suffocated themselves, were pronounced dead within two days of the showing, the Honolulu medical examiner's office said yesterday. Dr. Kanthi von Guenthner, first deputy medical examiner, said she occasionally sees suicide by asphyxiation, but she has never seen two suicides using the same method occur on the same weekend, leading her to believe the deaths and the show were connected.

"I don't think this was coincidence," von Guenthner said. She believes the show "had some influence on how and why they died.

"Once they see the method, it encourages them to practice it, or if they are contemplating (suicide), it's an easy way out."

The video "Final Exit" was shown on Olelo Channel 52 at midnight Tuesday and Friday. It is based on a best seller by Derek Humphry, an Oregon resident who helped lead a successful campaign to persuade his state legislature to legalize physician-assisted suicides. The video shows ways to commit suicide for the terminally ill who prefer to die rather than suffer.

The victims were not chronically ill, von Guenthner said. A man in his 60s who was depressed over a failed relationship committed suicide by asphyxiation, using the same method shown on TV, and was pronounced dead at 12:13 p.m. Friday.

A woman in her 40s with a history of clinical depression killed herself the same way and was pronounced dead Saturday at 3:08 p.m., the medical examiner's office said.

Of 99 suicides committed on Oahu during the latest fiscal year, only two were caused by asphyxiation, the office said.

Lurline Wailana McGregor, Olelo Community Television president, said she received heavy demand for a third showing of the video because of confusion over airing times, but said it will not be aired again. "We fulfilled our obligation for two airings," McGregor said yesterday.

Although the video raised controversy, Olelo aired the show because it is committed to free access for community dialogue, without censorship.

Based on calls to the station for another showing, McGregor said she believed the video "was more than anything else a compassionate program, not hard core, telling you what to do. Either people got bored with objecting to it or watched it and realized the guy was acting out of love, not out of a perverse way."

Humphry, contacted in Eugene, Ore., yesterday, said the video was shown twice there last month but he was not aware of any reported suicides that could be connected to the showing.

"The death of any person is deeply tragic, but if these people are intent on suicide, and released themselves in a nonviolent way from their troubles, then I can live with that," Humphry said.

Humphry, a former journalist, said media that drew attention to his video should share the responsibility of any connected suicides. He was "astonished" when TV networks showed graphic footage from his video on their news.

His wife, whose breast cancer had spread to her bones and liver in 1976, asked Humphry to help her die. His doctor friend helped with a lethal overdose of drugs for her. He founded the Hemlock Society in 1983.

The Hawaii chapter of the Hemlock Society, which has pushed for a physician-assisted suicide law for the terminally ill, asked Olelo to air the suicide video.

Andi van der Voort, president of the Hawaii chapter and a nurse, said she believes it was unfair to connect the two suicides to the video because "it takes some time to get supplies together."

Van der Voort, who stressed that the society concerns itself only with the terminally ill, said she knew several depressed people who took took their lives because "medicine could not help them with their chemical imbalance. If they got treatment, they probably wouldn't take this avenue."

She also emphasized that Humphry's book has been out for 10 years; but von Guenthner believes seeing suicide on TV could influence people more than print, and Humphry agreed.

Doctors opposed to the airing of the video were happy that it will not be shown again on Oahu. Dr. Philip Hellreich, president-elect of the Hawaii Medical Association, said while there was no conclusive evidence that the suicides were related to the airing of the video, the incidents certainly suggested a connection.

He said he was confident that a majority of association members opposed showing the video. The HMA opposed a physician-assisted suicide bill last year.

Dr. Wayne Levy, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente, had warned before the documentary aired that it could lead people to commit suicide.

"Even if you believe in assisted suicide for the terminally ill, educating the entire public about how to harm yourself is going to lead folks with depression and individuals under acute stress, can lead them, to attempt suicide and be successful," Levy said.

"Most suicides are not individuals that would be the target audience of groups like the Hemlock Society. Most are depressed."

Levy said any persons with suicidal thoughts should call their insurance companies to get access to mental health professionals. The uninsured can get help through community mental health centers, and emergency rooms will not turn anyone away, he said.

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