Suicide Prevention and Understanding in NNY

Bob Gorman

Suicide remains the death that dares not speak its name.

    Families often write around the word in obituaries to avoid citing the actual cause of death. Medical examiners are occasionally begged to do the same thing if writing the word “suicide” in their report will mean the loss of benefits for a grieving survivor with three small children.

    And all those drug overdoses? Local death statistics include actual question marks. That’s because even though investigators are pretty sure many of these deaths were intentional, they can’t be certain if there were no notes or witnesses.

    If you talk to first responders, nonprofit leaders and high school guidance counselors, you learn quickly that suicide is a topic that can no longer be avoided. Somebody this year will attempt suicide while in jail, or at a halfway house or after another evening of reading texts from a mob attacking the psyche of a solitary teenager.

    My one lone involvement with a suicide was the death of an employee at the Watertown Daily Times in 1999. Charlie Tenny took his life by hanging himself from a tree in his beloved Adirondacks. Because Charlie was a journalist, many other journalists tried to make sense of the senseless.

    One of Charlie’s friends, who worked at the Hartford Courant, wrote a column almost a year after Charlie’s death that included this: “The timing of his suicide remains incomprehensible to me. He did it while his sister, Carol, was in China adopting a baby girl. Carol got the news of Charlie’s death in Los Angeles, between flights on the way home to Pittsburgh. She screamed “No! No! No!” so loud that people came running across the terminal.

    Back home, Carol fell into depression.

    “I did feel my life changed unalterably from the moment I found out that Charlie did what he did,” Carol told me. “I would look at teenagers laughing, and I would just be amazed. They were like foreign animals. What are these people doing? There just seemed to be such a gulf between me and them.”

    In public places, Carol would suddenly blurt out, “I love you, Charlie.”

    “I thought I was saying it quietly, but people would look at me funnily… but I couldn’t talk to anybody without telling them about [Charlie’s suicide]; it was a central fact of my life.”

    To encourage a conversation about the value of life, the United Way of NNY in late March sponsored events at eight high schools and two evening programs with Roger Breisch of Batavia, Ill. Breisch has spent the last 15 years as a counselor on local and national suicide hotlines, often talking to teenagers who think their lives are useless.

    Breisch’ s talk, “Finding Life on the Suicide Hotline” challenged students to take an inventory of their own lives and find ways to value the person they are, and not give credence to a false narrative about who they aren’t.

    His uplifting message comes at a good time. The region’s suicide prevention coalitions in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties are working to reverse a trend that saw 163 people commit suicide in the three-county region over a five-year period.

    Kevin Contino, a data analyst for the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, has statistics collected locally and through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    In 2016, the suicide death rate per 100,000 population was:

  • 12.8 for the three-county region
  • 8.5 for New York State
  • 13.9 for the United States

 Over the most recent five years of federal data (2012-2016), the death rate due to suicide was:

  • 14.1 in Jefferson County (83 deaths, 16.6 per year)
  • 21.4 in Lewis County (29 deaths, 5.8 per year)
  • 9.2 in St. Lawrence County (51 deaths, 10.2 per year)
  • The most common mechanisms for suicide were firearms (48 percent), hanging/suffocation (31 percent), and poisoning (19 percent).
  • Eighty-four percent of decedents were male.
  • Sixty percent of suicide deaths were at the decedent’s home, 7 percent were in an outpatient medical facility, and 33 percent elsewhere.
  • During the five year span, the death rate per 100,000 people for the age groups 15-24, 34-44 and 65-74 was almost identical at just over 17 percent.
  • In 2016 residents of the tri-county region had 235 emergency department visits with a principal diagnosis of either suicide attempt or suicidal ideation. The numbers for each county were: Jefferson, 161; Lewis; 15 and St. Lawrence: 59. Seventy-one percent of these patients were younger than 30; the median age was 21 and the percentage of male and female was identical.

    And for every one of these cases, there are dozens of survivors, like Charlie’s sister, who still cry out a loved one’s name.

    As Roger Breisch showed the north country last month, there is never a wrong time to start having a regional conversation to help reduce that suffering.

Bob Gorman is president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York. Contact him at bgorman@unitedway-nny.org or 315-788-5631.