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October 1, 2014

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2B or not 2B? The age of the Twitter suicide note is upon us

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Much has been written about suicide in Clark County, and this is understandable: We have one of the nation's highest suicide rates, and studies have shown that merely being in Las Vegas increases the likelihood you'll take your life — like it's something in the air.

There's another body of writing about suicides in Clark County that gets much less attention, however — the volumes left behind by people who killed themselves. Suicide notes.

As it turns out, only 38 percent of people who end their lives in Clark County leave notes. The percentage was calculated in 2007, when the coroner's office had a medical student run numbers on all suicides that occurred between 2004 and 2006 — a three-year window that averaged almost one suicide daily.

What's particularly interesting about the study, however, is that the coroner's office didn't limit its scope to notes on paper. They took into account any "lasting form of pre-death communication," which meant e-mails, MySpace postings, voice mails, video recordings and, yes, text messages.

To be fair, the electronic suicide notes were few and far between: Eight e-mails or MySpace postings, three voice mails, one video and three text-message goodbyes. Incidentally, the small group who used electronic means to leave notes ranged in age from 18 to 70; this is more than the stuff of youth.

And the study is now three years old. It stands to reason that the growing number of people who use text messaging will translate into more texted suicide notes, and other computer-mediated post-mortem messaging.

The average suicide note is reportedly fewer than 150 words, which raises a truly dark specter: Twitter.

Of course, Clark County's 38 percent is probably a very rough number — who knows how many notes go unfound, or are destroyed in the messy process of dying, or are hidden by family members shamed by the stigma of suicide. Nationally, different numbers are always given for the percentage of people who leave behind notes — sometimes as low as 12 percent, sometimes high as half.

In the end, studies show that most notes fall into one of a few themes: apology, hopelessness, pain, love for the people left behind, anger, and, in some circumstances, very practical, matter-of-fact instructions — what to do with the dog, where to find the will, which mortuary to hire.

In England last year, a man sent his wife a cell phone photo of craggy seaside cliffs, and told her he was going to jump. By the time police arrived, he had already landed.

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