Editorial State Must Maintain Momentum Gained On Suicide Prevention

Dr. Benjamin Liptzin paused for a moment when he was asked by The Healthcare News how many of the more than 400 suicides that take place in Massachusetts each year could actually be prevented.He acknowledged that this was a difficult, if not impossible, query to answer, because there are so many factors that are involved — from the age of the individuals to the reasons why they are contemplating suicide.But even the most vague of answers — some — provides the inspiration for the Pioneer Valley Suicide Prevention Coalition, a group that is making some real progress in the ongoing struggle to reduce suicide rates in this region. The coalition staged a hugely successful event earlier this month, a day-long suicide-prevention seminar titled, What Can We Do? The audience of more than 450 learned that there is much that they can do, starting with a better understanding of suicide and its causes, as well as the understanding that, in many cases, it can be prevented.

Another of the things they learned is that they must keep the pressure on state and national leaders to continue funding suicide-prevention programs. Public budgets are tight, especially in Massachusetts, where a projected $2 billion deficit must be closed. Initiatives such as suicide prevention will be among those to suffer, unless there is a solid grassroots effort to convince elected officials about how important this matter is.

And just how important is it? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Since 9/11, when 3,000 Americans lost their lives to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, more than 10 times that many people have taken their own lives. That’s a horrible statistic, but perhaps more frightening is the perception among many people that there is nothing that can be done to mitigate those numbers.

In actuality, we can do something about suicide. As the speakers at the Nov. 14 conference testified, it all begins with an understanding of why suicide happens. With a better understanding of the causes and the triggers of suicide, loved ones may be able to recognize the symptoms and then take perhaps the most important step — helping the individual get the help that is needed.

Indeed, the coalition, funded by a grant from the State Department of Public Health, was created to help people understand suicide and to put resources — not merely statistics — in the hands of mental health professionals, educators, employers, and first responders such as police and fire personnel.

Liptzin and others who spoke at the conference said that while there are myriad factors that play into one’s decision to attempt suicide — from depression to alcohol, pain to panic disorders — the bottom line for most individuals is the feeling that taking their life is their best option. This is especially prevalent among senior citizens, the group with the highest rates of suicide and the one most prone to feelings of helplessness and despair.

Prevention is possible when individuals can be convinced that they have better options, regardless of the hardships life has thrown at them, whether it be divorce, financial problems, or even unrelenting job stress.

There are a great many statistics available about suicide — everything from the rates of various demographic groups to the percentage of men who choose a handgun as their method, from the risk factor of people with mood disorders to the percentage of all deaths of alcoholics caused by suicide. But perhaps the most important statistic, one that is hard to attach a number to, is the fact that suicides can be prevented.

The Surgeon General said as much in a 1999 report which declared that suicide is a health care priority for this country.

State and federal funding of programs like the Pioneer Valley Suicide Prevention Coalition has created some much-needed momentum in the fight to lower suicide rates. That was evidenced by the overflow crowds at the Nov. 14 conference and the fact that planners turned away another 300 who wanted to attend. It is important that we not lose any of the momentum we have gained on the issue.

The budget decisions to be made in the next few years will be very difficult ones. The huge deficit in the Bay State cannot be closed by simple economies of scale or consolidations of departments. Real cuts will have to made. We would urge the Legislature to closely consider the real cost to society when it considers further cuts to the state’s programs to prevent suicide.

That cost is enormous — one that we can no longer live with.