While homicides, accidental deaths and deaths by natural causes can be fairly well known, the number of people who die by suicide each year can only be estimated. This is in part due to the stigma or shame many people attach to it.
That's one reason why community leaders and mental health professionals are trying to call attention to this social problem during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week, which continues through Saturday.
The Fulton & Montgomery Suicide Prevention Task Force advertises a telephone number and website - 1-800-273-8255 and suicidepreventionlifeline.org- to offer a local crisis counselor to anyone considering suicide.
The task force is trying to reach out to three groups: people who are suicidal, families and friends of people who have died by suicide, and the general populace.
The American Association of Suicidology estimates that in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, almost 40,000 people died by suicide in the United States - 100.8 suicides per day, or one every 14.3 minutes- making it the 10th leading cause of death. Ninety percent of suicides had at least one or more mental disorders, and drug or alcohol addiction increases the risk.
According to state Department of Health data, 16 people committed suicide in Fulton County from 2007 to 2009. In Montgomery County, 14 people committed suicide during that period, and in Hamilton County, two people committed suicide during that period, according to the data. Statewide, 4,023 suicides were reported over the three years.
The reported cases, however, may be lower than the actual numbers. Accurate data are hard to come by because of underreporting, although data have shown an apparent uptick since 2000, said Kathy Cromie, deputy director of the Mental Health Association of Fulton and Montgomery Counties. She said the task force wants the issue out in the open so the community can reach out to people at risk for suicide and to families and friends hurt by suicide, as in cases when a student commits suicide.
Marianne Reid, who said she knows the pain resulting from a brother's suicide, leads a support group for survivors of those who've taken their own lives. Survivors of a Loved One's Suicide Support Group meets at 7 p.m. every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam. The group involves adults and older teenagers from more than 25 families. Reid can be reached at 209-3569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reid said having a family member die by suicide is "a very isolating and lonely path to travel," so it is vital to be able "to connect with someone who understands. For a year, I dealt with this loss alone."
She said that most of the time, people don't know how to console a grieving family member, but all they need to say to them is something like this: "I'm so sorry. I don't have the words to make this better, but I'm so sorry."
A sense of isolation also is one of the reasons people consider suicide. "If you feel like you're completely alone, your hope factor isn't there," said Cromie, speaking of the importance of compassion for those in emotional need.
What's especially tragic about suicide is that it is "a permanent solution to a temporary problem," she said. "Nothing is ever so bad that you have to make that choice."
Because isolation is a common factor for those who die by suicide and their survivors, local efforts to create more openness about the issue will benefit everyone involved.