U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is facing criticism for joking that reading negative newspaper articles would make him “slit my wrists,” with some saying the comment is an inappropriate joke about suicide.
Burr was speaking to a group of Chamber of Commerce members in Youngsville Tuesday night when he took a quick jab at The News & Observer. “If I had a subscription to the Raleigh News & Observer, I couldn’t read it, because I’d slit my wrists with what they say about me,” he said, as the crowd laughed.
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The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the remark.
“As the mother of a child who died by suicide, I cringe whenever someone makes a joke about suicide,” said Betsy Rhodes, North Carolina area director for the group. “The very common gesture of pointing a gun-like finger to one’s own head is horrific for me, since my son died from the use of a firearm. I can only imagine the number of North Carolina citizens who were hurt by the senator’s comment, because their loved one has either died by this means of suicide or struggles and has attempted suicide by this means.”
Rhodes said she hopes North Carolina’s senior senator learns from the negative reaction to the joke.
“While I understand, and often appreciate dark humor, and personally believe that Sen. Burr meant no harm, this is a Teachable Moment,” she said in an email. “I invite Sen. Burr and others – especially public figures – to please refrain from ever making light of suicide. While your intention is humor, the effect is hurt.”
The liberal advocacy group Progress NC Action also blasted the remark, posting on Twitter that “Sen. Richard Burr shamefully jokes about suicide to criticize the media.”
Asked for the senator’s reaction to the criticism, Burr spokeswoman Becca Watkins said “I don’t have any comment but you are proving his point well, though.” She was referring to Burr’s initial criticism of The N&O.
Rhodes said her group teaches “safe messaging” to help people avoid talk that might inadvertently encourage someone with suicidal thoughts. That includes avoiding phrases like “commit suicide” or “successful attempt,” because they “perpetuate suicide’s stigma and moral judgment,” according to the foundation’s website. Jokes can also be harmful to people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“We know from research that these jokes contribute to the stigma and shame that surrounds suicide, which can prevent those who struggle from getting the help they need,” Rhodes said.