BANGOR, Maine — Suicide is a tragedy that affects virtually everyone. As such, it is a topic that needs to be discussed openly, according to some Mainers at the forefront of the suicide prevention effort.
“This is one of those things that nobody wants to talk about or think about, because [they think] it’s not going to happen to them, but it’s unfortunately a thing that people have come to realize can happen in any family,” Cheryl DiCara, a spokeswoman for the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program, said in an interview last week.
“It knows no educational or socioeconomic or age boundary. It can impact anyone, any family,” she said.
But suicide often can be prevented though awareness and education.
That is why the state’s health care community, along with suicide survivors, has been working to bring the issue out into the open this week, which is National Suicide Prevention Week. The Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program, a program of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is among the agencies and organizations working to raise awareness and provide people with the resources they need to help themselves or others who may be considering suicide.
Among the individuals involved in the prevention effort are Norman and Pat Heitmann of Hampden and Victor and Cheryl Morin of Abbot.
The Heitmanns lost their son Andy Bragg to suicide in July 2003. They are among nearly a dozen suicide “survivors” who recently underwent training to become members of the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program’s speakers bureau.
The speakers share their experiences and offer guidance in such areas as the signs that someone may be considering suicide, what to do about it, how to intervene and how to help others cope when the unimaginable happens. Their audiences range from first responders and law enforcement officers to crisis intervention teams and educators.
“It’s important that people talk about it,” Norman Heitmann said, adding that while virtually everyone has been touched by or knows someone who has been touched by suicide, the topic too often remains off limits.
“It’s taboo, yet it’s a fact of life. It just is,” he said.
Though Maine’s suicide rates are considered moderate, the numbers are sobering.
From 2005 through 2009, Maine saw an average of 181 suicides a year, according to the state’s records.
During that period, there were a total of 901 suicides, 93 of them involving youth and young adults up to the age of 24. Another 280 people were 25-44 years old, while 359 were between 45 and 64 years old and 87 were 75 or older.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults in Maine behind motor vehicle accidents.
In an interview last week, DiCara said that state officials look at five-year increments when analyzing suicide trends. The three most recent data sets available, which span 2003-07, 2004-08 and 2005-09, show that the suicide rate for 20- to 24-year-olds has remained stable while the rate for older Mainers is on the rise.
One encouraging spot, however, is that the number of suicides among 15- to 19-year-olds in Maine is going down, from 46 in 2003-07 and 45 in 2004-09 to 33 in 2005.
DiCara attributes the decrease in large part to prevention and education efforts, including a website and training program delivered by the Maine division of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We do a lot of work in Maine schools, so that’s really exciting news,” she said.
Though it can be painful, the Heitmanns and the Morins believe sharing their experiences can help others.
“It does make a difference,” Pat Heitmann said. “It makes a difference in those who might be considering suicide. Suicide can be prevented.”
The Morins founded the JD Foundation two years ago in honor of their son, William Jody Day, who took his own life at the age of 19 in November 2008. It offers suicide awareness training and education and organizes activities that aim to improve the health of mind, body and soul.
Morin said that awareness is a large part of the solution and that knowing the red flags — depression, in her son’s case — can be the key to prevention.
“My son had attempted suicide twice prior and I still didn’t think he would die by suicide,” she said. “If I had had some knowledge, things possibly could have been different.”
Pat Heitmann agreed.
“Suicide is preventable,” she said. To those who might be thinking about suicide, “Please talk to someone first,” she said softly. “Time does change the issues. So hold on.”