Lessons From A Man Overboard

On May 24, 18-year-old Bruce O’Krepki went overboard from the top deck of the Carnival Fantasy into the Gulf of Mexico. This was widely reported.

Witnesses say he jumped. This detail was much less widely reported.

It’s all old news now. The Coast Guard could not find Bruce, an accomplished athlete and recent high school graduate, and ended its search. His friends and family are mourning.

Yet, I’m troubled by the impression this story leaves. At least two important truths have been obscured by the way it was covered in the media and the way we treat such things in our society.

One truth is that suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of  10 and 24. The first two causes, homicide and accidents, are widely covered in the news. But unless a suicide is public, as Bruce O’Krepki’s was, it’s rarely reported.

It was so when I was a young reporter. It is so today.

In an effort to be sensitive to the dead and their survivors, the media hides the true toll of suicide. So anyone who didn’t follow the news thoroughly to the end of the story might believe that Bruce O’Krepki accidentally toppled over a cruise ship railing into the sea.

And that’s where another truth comes in. It’s really not possible to fall off a cruise ship, not in the sense that you might be walking along the deck and a wave could wash you overboard. The ships are too stable and the railings too high for that. People do sometimes fall from cruise ships — after they jumped. Very occasionally they are pushed, or they fall while climbing on a railing or otherwise taking a foolish risk.

Yet it seems that every time someone goes overboard from a cruise ship, news reports says he or she fell. If it’s not technically inaccurate, it is certainly misleading.

So let’s be fair to the cruise industry and acknowledge that people aren’t sliding off cruise ship decks into the sea on a regular basis. And, more importantly, let’s be fair to Bruce O’Krepki and honest about the pervasive tragedy of suicide — because we can’t solve problems we don’t admit we have.

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