The suicide of a Cooperstown, N.D., teen will be investigated, but Griggs County Sheriff Bob Hook said it will progress slowly and take the wishes of her family into consideration.
"We don't want this to turn into a witch hunt," Hook said.
The sheriff said beyond some brief initial queries, no further interviews had been done.
Hook said what Cassidy Andel's family wants will affect how the investigation will proceed, but it's still possible reports will be given to the Griggs County state's attorney to review for any potential charges.
"We're at a distance from that," he said. "We're not looking at this as some major criminal case here."
Hook said last week that bullying may have played a role in the Nov. 4 suicide of the 16-year-old. The state has no laws on bullying, but North Dakota lawmakers have said they plan to push anti-bullying bills in the 2011 legislative session.
Hook said the blame put on bullying has been out of control, and he believes the community grasps that.
"It's not the main driver for the suicide. We don't know what it is. We may never know," Hook said. "People are starting to realize there's a lot more involved in this than anybody knows."
The intense spotlight on bullying shows the challenges that arise after a highly publicized suicide. Discussion in the wake of such a traumatic event can perpetuate misconceptions, but it can also be an unavoidable "teachable moment" for the media and parents, suicide prevention experts said.
With media reports, a big concern is avoiding dramatization and simplification, said Ann Haas, director of prevention projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
It's better to focus on how to identify and treat mental illnesses usually apparent prior to a suicide than to draw cause-and-effect conclusions based on potential triggers, Haas said. That can normalize suicide and incorrectly make it seem like an expected response.
"We just know that's not the way suicide works," she said. "There's not this direct line."
Coverage of the suicide was criticized in an e-mail exchange among members of North Dakota's Suicide Prevention Coalition this week. One concern specifically raised was placing too much emphasis on the role bullying may have played.
Gail Erickson, director of suicide and family violence prevention for the state's Department of Health, said she hopes dialogue turns to how to prevent suicides.
"The more we talk about suicide as a response to trauma, the less we get out the positive message," she said.
Haas said that's not to say bullying doesn't take an intense emotional toll.
"It does have real mental health consequences," she said. "We just don't want to send the message that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with it."
Studies have shown that teenage suicides can spur other suicides in a "contagion effect," a phenomenon linked in part to the quantity and nature of news reports, Haas said.
"We're very concerned about that," Hook said.
For parents, especially of children who've struggled with mental health issues, it's best to be upfront about the issue. Asking the direct question is OK, Haas said.
"Often, people feel that's not an appropriate thing to ask about. That does not put any ideas in people's minds," Haas said. "This is an important time to keep the channels of communication open."
Particularly with teens, a frank discussion can point out that youthful stress and anxiety do pass and that mental health problems are treatable, Erickson said.
"It's kind of like you have a pair of sunglasses on. You don't see clearly," she said. "It might not seem like there are solutions, but there are solutions."
Ninety percent of those who kill themselves suffer from mental illness, often a mood disorder like depression or addiction problems, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"That's a health problem. It's no different than diabetes or anything else you'd go to the doctor for," Erickson said.
That makes being watchful as essential as talking, as major changes in behavior are the easiest warning signs to observe, Haas said.
Hook said that's also his focus as Cooperstown tries to heal and move forward.
"Parents have got to get involved," the sheriff said. "It all comes down to personal responsibility."
When someone is thinking about suicide
Here are some tips from Gail Erickson, the state's suicide and family violence prevention director:
# If someone is talking about suicide, don't leave him alone. Remove any means from the vicinity.
# Listen to what the person says without judging and without trying to talk her out of it. Tell her she's not alone and the feelings are temporary.
# Take him to the nearest medical center. If none is available, call the suicide prevention line at (800) 273-8255.
# Following the immediate crisis, encourage her to stick with any counseling appointments and medication schedules and help her get involved in community and family activities.
# Help him to recognize and build on his own individual strengths so he can get through life's stress.