Advocates push to make suicide prevention a central issue


Suicide prevention advocates made their case Thursday for investing in efforts to save lives in a state where the suicide rate is well above the national average.

Gov. Peter Shumlin's budget request includes $100,000 for the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. Since its inception in 2008, the center has been supported mainly through federal funding. Last year the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration moved $472,937 to the center, but this year, the center says, that funding will dry up.

A key initiative of the center is the development of the Zero Suicide project, which aims to ensure survival for everyone in Vermont who is getting care because of being at risk of suicide. The program involves training and other tools for providers of medical and behavioral health services.

"The research is very clear that 90 percent of those people who attempt a suicide and go on to get help and treatment recover and are glad that they had not completed the suicide," said JoEllen Tarallo-Falk, the center's director. She and others spoke Thursday at a Statehouse news conference.

As part of the center's effort to get lawmakers behind it, Rep. Joanna Cole, D-Burlington, and Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, sponsored a joint resolution on suicide prevention that was read on the House floor Thursday afternoon.

"The facts in Vermont are really quite staggering," said Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen.

Vermont's suicide rate in 2013 was 16.9 per 100,000 people, in contrast to a rate of 12.6 per 100,000 nationwide, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

A few theories exist as to why Vermont's suicide rate is higher than average, said Alex Potter, a program specialist at the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. Less access to mental health resources, higher isolation and a high level of gun ownership in the state all might contribute, Potter said.

Alex Potter

Of all the deaths by gunshot in Vermont, about 90 percent of them were suicides, he said.

"It's not about taking away guns completely. It's about how can we help during that little window when someone is suicidal," he said. Pro-gun groups like the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and Gun Owners of Vermont have signed on to the Gun Shop project, a program by the center aimed at reducing suicide deaths by firearms.

"Guns are so fast," Potter said. "If you're feeling particularly low, that can be dangerous."

Mary Butler, a retired nurse, spoke about her brother, who killed himself in 2005. Standing with a quilt bearing embroidered pictures of his life, she said he developed alcoholism in college. In five years, he had been in and out of recovery six times.

While she said she might be "dreaming a bit," Butler said she believes Vermont can eliminate suicide deaths.

"We can put all the essential ingredients in place to truly prevent suicide," she said.

Before the end of the news conference, Tarallo-Falk asked journalists to cover suicide with respect. She asked reporters to replace the term "committed suicide" with "died by suicide." The former reflects a time when suicide was a crime in many places or a sin in some religions, rather than being considered the public health issue it is now.

Though no state has laws against suicide anymore, in 2013 Vermont became the fourth state to legalize suicide with the help of a doctor for certain terminally ill patients.

The national suicide prevention hotline is 800-273-8255.


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