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.

World of Working Poor Misunderstood

Bob Gorman

The late Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a millionaire many times over, lived in the same house on the north side of Pittsburgh from the 1930s until his death in 1988.
     That seemingly insignificant fact is actually an example of a very significant point made in the book “Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis” by Robert Putnam.
     Children in America today don’t experience the same variety of life—and views—as children did decades ago because they no longer live around families of different economic standing. Anybody living today in the same economic stratosphere Rooney conquered years ago would never live in the same neighborhood for 50 years, surrounded by an increasing number of unknown neighbors who can only afford to live where property values are declining.
     Through voices and statistics, Putnam shows how we have become a nation of economically segregated communities. The world of the impoverished and the working poor is all around, but it is misunderstood and misinterpreted by those well off because often our only interactions – if there are any at all – are through the service industry. We only speak when you take my dinner order or when you show me in which aisle I can find light bulbs.
     If asked, we can give myriad examples of how the world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years because of the digital revolution. We get our money out of an ATM, our music out of a phone, our weather forecast out of an app. Communication isn’t the same; sports aren’t the same; medicine isn’t the same, education is not the same.
     But with poverty, many of us are guilty of thinking the same things we thought 30 years ago. Such as, poverty can be ended overnight, if only: 1) People would stop being lazy and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and 2) Government would stop giving away so much welfare.
     Except there is this: The economic decline of the U.S. since the 1980s has ensured that more people do not have the wherewithal to be self-sufficient. The ability for thousands of north country citizens to create sufficient wealth—such as that produced on assembly lines at Air Brake, General Motors and a myriad other businesses in the north country— has disappeared.
     With the loss of stable, 40-hour-a-week jobs that included health insurance and pensions, thousands of people under the age of 40 have entered a job market that bears no relationship to the world their parents entered. Meanwhile, the ability to hand down financial support from one generation to the next is eroding as well.
     And that trend will continue, as outlined in the book “Humans Need Not Apply” by Jerry Kaplan, who has been at the epicenter of the creation of “artificial intelligence” for the last 40 years.
     While government crows loudest when employment is highest, business is most profitable when it employs the fewest people possible. And artificial intelligence – from the airline and concert tickets you buy online today to the driverless vehicle you will buy/rent in a few years – is eliminating one job after another, particularly those that the working poor are most able to do.
     (Just to be fair, Kaplan points out that artificial intelligence will eventually be providing the majority of initial medical diagnoses and routine legal work, knocking off a lot of jobs in medicine and law too.)
     This is producing one massive conundrum: Government is trying to move those in poverty and the working poor toward jobs that are being eliminated by artificial intelligence.
     Right now around 100 citizens in Watertown are taking part in a program that is trying to find local answers to that very issue. The Watertown/Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) is one of 16 such studies going on in New York that are giving communities an opportunity to receive state funds if they can develop a plan to make more people self-sufficient.
     Locally the program is being administered by the United Way of NNY and directed by former YMCA
     Executive Director Peter Schmitt. Dozens of meetings are being held to discuss four primary areas: housing, transportation, education and workforce development.
     With continued progress, a road map for Watertown will be submitted to the state this summer and programs will be funded and begin soon after.
     There is no guarantee that anything can be done to reduce poverty in Watertown. But as Putnam and Kaplan show us, doing nothing will allow the problem to become worse.