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Opinion: Shawn’s Law enhances penalties for suicide encouragement

Gov. Tom Wolf signed an important bill Sept. 30, which I don’t believe has received enough public attention.

House Bill 184 (known as Shawn’s Law) takes effect after being delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It can enhance a prison sentence for causing or helping a suicide victim under the age of 18 or one who has an intellectual disability or autism. Under existing legislation, aiding and abetting a suicide is already a second-class felony, but this would give the judge more leeway to impose a tougher sentence.

Introduced by Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, it had the support and co-sponsorship of Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who has been a persistent advocate for dealing with depression and its consequences. Several years ago, Schlossberg went public with his own battles with depression to inspire others to know that they are not alone.

The bill is named for Shawn Shatto, 25, who while suffering from depression took her own life 2½ years ago in her Newberry Township, York County, home by poisoning herself with step-by-step instructions from an online chat forum.

According to information gathered by the authorities, instead of encouraging Shawn to seek help, at least one person on the forum told her that suicide was the best solution to her anxieties and wished her well on her “journey.” Shawn had followed the directions in making the poisonous potion but then was reluctant to take it, so she checked back with the online chat forum participants where she was encouraged to follow through on her plan.

Wolf signed the bill on the last day of Suicide Awareness Month. The signing culminated an effort by Shawn’s mother to hold accountable those who encourage and assist vulnerable minors and those with disabilities or mental anxieties to commit suicide.

Jacqueline Bieber, Shawn’s mother, vowed to fight for tougher legislation so other parents would not have to experience what she and her family have been going through by losing her daughter.

She also said that more needs to be done to adequately fund the mental health system, offer incentives to mental health professionals to attract people to the profession, and provide necessary funding for mental health and intellectual disabilities programs.

All of us need to share in Bieber’s determination to “shut down these horrific sites out there.”

Although Shawn’s suicide occurred 30 months ago, her death remains under investigation by Newberry Township police, the York County District Attorney’s office and the FBI.

As Shawn’s mother aptly put it, Shawn lost her life to darkness, but she did so with the help of darkness. No website that encourages people to take their own lives should be allowed to operate. “Pure evil, cruelty and darkness are all I can use to describe this horrific tragedy,” Bieber said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2019, as more than 48,000 people took their lives. This is roughly the population of our state capital, Harrisburg. Although figures are not completely compiled for 2020, it appears as if the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an even higher suicide rate.

The CDC also reports that suicide was the second leading cause of death among those ages 10 and 34 and the fourth leading cause among those between 35 and 44.

We routinely express our concern and outrage about the alarming rise in homicides in our country, but there were nearly 2½ times as many suicides as homicides. Where is our outrage about this?

As staggering as it might be, about 1.4 million suicide attempts are made in our nation each year.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a nationwide network of local crisis centers which provides free and confidential support to those in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It is committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide awareness and prevention by empowering people.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, please call 800-273-8255.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.