Nov. 18: suicide prevention

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Maybe it’s because we nearly lost my son at age 16 to suicide.  How lucky we were.

Stories about the high rate of suicide among soldiers hit home. By the end of  2008, it was 140 active duty men and women.  By mid-November this year, it’s 140, though the Pentagon reports the rate has slowed. Then this week our granddaughter got word that a high school classmate, an honors student, and a former Spanish student of my daughter, killed himself at college.

No doubt, we’ll be talking about the suicide rate in the military at Friday’s meeting of our county’s Suicide Prevention Council. I well remember encouraging our coroner to organize just such a group.  I wrote editorials praising him when he followed through. But it was only the sort of response that Surgeon General David Satcher had called for that year.  Then, retired from the paper, I joined the council, now composed of physicians, a sheriff’s deputy, counselors and advocates.  Our most public event featured Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” telling his story of depression and thoughts of suicide to an audience of 700 people at Indiana Purdue University.

But for all the meetings and the efforts to train people on suicide prevention, our suicide rate hasn’t changed much.  On any given year, we lose about 30 people, of various ages, to suicide.  That works out to the national average of 10 per 100,000.   That’s more than some countries, fewer than others.

We naturally assume that the recent horrors of combat explains the current high rate within the army.  But the rate is higher among long-time veterans than the civilian population.  

A few years ago, the air force was able to cut that service’s suiciderate, nearly in half.  The psychiatrist who designed the program told me that the main feature was to train officers who managed the airmen and women.  The officers were educated to know when those serving under them were having emotional problems, depression, anxiety and so forth.

By extension, it’s always seemed that training managers and teachersin civilian life along the same lines help avert tragedy.  The watchword is to identify the problems, then see that the person suffering getsprofessional help.

The side benefit is that the more people who are trained in suicide prevention, the better we can combat the stigma. Every community should tackle suicide as a major public health issue, just as we’ve attempted to do in Fort Wayne.   I’ve interviewed a number of family members whose loved ones have committed suicide.  They never comprehend it.  They never really get over it.  I want to say that a suicide always has more than one victim.  

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