The statistics on suicide in Maine are frightening and they illustrate the importance of conversations that promote awareness and create opportunities for prevention.
Suicide is the most common form of violent death in Maine. The number of deaths by suicide in the state rose from 186 in 2010 to 204 in 2011, an average of almost four per week. Maine’s suicide rate of 14 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2010, the most recent year that the American Federation for Suicide Prevention compared state statistics, reflects a decrease from previous years, but not enough to reverse the state’s trend of ranking higher than national (12.4) and New England (10.8) averages.
Through collaboration with partners such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness Maine, the Maine Suicide Prevention Program, which started in 1998, has succeeded in reducing the rate of youth suicide in Maine by 7 percent since 2001-06. Some of that success can be traced to training school staff on suicide awareness, risk assessment and intervention, according to Greg A. Marley, senior manager for education and support at NAMI. But much of it also relates to making schools places where “kids are acknowledged as individuals every day,” he said.
Simple strategies such as having school staff greet students as they enter the building and being more available to hear their concerns represent helpful, no-cost ways to reduce youth suicide.
Significant increases in suicide fatalities among working-age Mainers, mostly men, during the past five years more than offset positive developments in reducing suicide deaths among Mainers between 10 and 19 years old.
Given that increase and the fact that 85 percent of male suicide fatalities in Maine result from gun use, denying people at risk of suicide access to firearms should be an obvious intervention. Citing a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in which nearly a quarter of respondents between 15 and 34 said that less than five minutes passed between the time they decided to attempt suicide and the time they took action, the Maine Suicide Prevention Program equates keeping guns away from at-risk people to taking car keys from intoxicated people.
Preventing anyone at risk of suicide from acquiring guns doesn’t abridge their rights; it elevates the chances of keeping them alive by as much as 90 percent.
With a greater percentage of Maine adults dying by suicide, the state’s prevention efforts have expanded beyond schools to workplaces and primary care practices, especially in rural areas where access to mental health services is limited.
For the past two years, the Maine Primary Care Association has worked with NAMI and the Maine Suicide Prevention Program to expand suicide screening, treatment and referral training for physicians and clinicians. Sebasticook Family Doctors, which operates practices in Newport, Dexter, Canaan, Pittsfield and Dover-Foxcroft, is participating in a pilot program designed to integrate physical and behavioral care to help people at risk of suicide. The group has trained staff, including those who greet patients, on suicide awareness and established new protocols to support staff, patients and family members affected by suicidal behaviors.
Robin Winslow, executive director of Sebasticook Family Doctors, said the practices have seen a marked increase in suicidal behavior among people of all ages, classes and levels of education. They now deal with it almost every day.
The loss of a $500,000-per-year federal grant in 2012 makes the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s efforts more difficult. It also increases the need for a broader public dialogue about suicide’s impact on Maine people.
That dialogue, according to Marley and Winslow, starts with simply talking to people at risk and not necessarily about suicide.
“One of the huge risk factors is that an individual feels deeply disconnected and alone,” Marley said. “We have to find a way to connect to people and show them that someone out there gives a damn, whether it’s through family, church or business.”
Suicide is an uncomfortable topic, but public health research shows that talking about it more in Maine schools, doctors’ offices, workplaces and homes will save lives. To start the conversation, call 888-568-1112.