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Covering the Filipino teacher suicides

by Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun
My story in today's paper was one of the hardest I've had to write in a long time.
As those of you who have been following The Sun's education coverage for awhile may remember, I spent the 2005-2006 school year following Aileen Mercado, a teacher from the Philippines who at the time was living 10,000 miles away from her husband and three kids. Aileen lived in the Symphony Center apartment building near the Meyerhoff along with 70-plus other Filipino teachers, and I got to know many of them that year, including Fe Bolado. (An archive of my series is posted here.)

I met Fe on the same day I met Aileen, in July 2005 at Fallstaff Elementary School. The first batch of Filipino teachers was in orientation, and I was there to pick one to trail for the year. For a little while that day, I actually considered making Fe my subject, but I decided against it because I wanted a teacher who'd left young children behind in the Philippines. But I'd see Fe at the teachers' weekly prayer meetings (which often turned into karaoke nights). I sat with her in the hall at Symphony one evening as she waited, dressed in a white skirt and top and wearing more makeup than normal, to record a Christmas video message for her boyfriend back in the Philippines. That boyfriend became the husband whose infidelity sent her into an emotional tailspin.

When Aileen called me in tears on the morning of May 25 to say Fe had killed herself, the only comfort I could offer was that newspapers don't normally cover suicides. When she called on the night of Nov. 8 to say it had happened again, I could no longer offer such comfort. Another suicide, done the same way, I knew my editors would say it was news.

I didn't know Irene Apao, but it was terrible to see the pain her death has caused on a community I've come to care very much about. And it was terrible, getting back in touch with some of Fe's friends, hearing about the sleepless nights and nightmares and stress-releated illnesses they've experienced since she died.

Learning of my plans to write a story, many of the Filipino teachers were afraid it would reflect badly on the program that's brought more than 400 of them to teach in Baltimore. I hope that's not the case. As the story points out, Baltimore's foreign teacher program has actually become known around the country for the intensive support it provides. Many administrators attest to the good that Filipino teachers are doing for the city schools.

The suicides have sparked efforts to raise awareness about mental illness, which is highly stigmatized in the Philippines. I hope that those prevention efforts pay off, and that there won't be an occasion for me to write about this subject again.

A Filipino television segment about Irene's death is here.


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