BANGOR, Maine — Suicides are preventable, and there are steps Maine residents can take to recognize the risk factors and reduce them, psychiatrist Susan Wehry said Friday morning as keynote speaker at the 2016 “Beyond The Basics In Suicide Prevention” conference at the Cross Insurance Center.
“We need to treat it like the Wild Wild West. When they went into a saloon, they hung up their guns,” Wehry said to a room full of area emergency responders, doctors and other health care professionals, school personnel and social workers, as well as families and community members touched by suicide. “We know alcohol and bullets don’t mix. Bad things happen when you mix alcohol and bullets.”
She said she is not suggesting taking away guns or ammunition but instead separating the ammo from the person at risk, by keeping it in the next room, for example, to “just put one step between compulsive action and completion. Fifty-three percent of the completed suicides in Maine are due to firearms.”
And alcohol is often involved, she said, so keeping loaded guns away from vulnerable people who are drinking alcohol is one simple step Mainers can take to reduce risks.
Wehry, a geriatric psychiatrist, educator and writer, talked about Maine’s demographics, where youth, veterans and people over the age of 65 have high rates of suicide, she said. Maine is ranked 14th in the country for deaths by suicide, with an average of around 200 deaths each year. Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people ages 10 to 34, according to 2014 Centers for Disease Control data.
“If we want to improve this, we need a variety of strategies,” Wehry said. “This takes everybody.”
Identifying people at risk, enhancing their life skills and connections to their communities or social networks, finding them a crisis manager, ensuring they have access to health care, especially mental health care, and restricting access to means are the key steps to prevention, her keynote address stressed.
“I applaud Maine for taking a proactive approach,” Wehry said, referencing the Maine Suicide Prevention Program Strategic Plan, 2012-17. “Everyone has a huge role in the solution.”
The daylong “Beyond The Basics In Suicide Prevention” conference is sponsored by the Mane Suicide Prevention Program led by the Maine Centers for Disease Control in partnership with National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, the Co-Occurring Collaborative Serving Maine and the Maine Medical Association.
After Wehry spoke, attendees broke into small groups for panel discussions covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives, veterans and military service members, seniors, young people and school policies.
To help empower students by identifying those at risk and getting them connected to resources available, Maine lawmakers in 2013 unanimously passed LD 609, An Act to Increase Suicide Awareness and Prevention in Maine Public Schools, which requires teachers be trained to recognize signs that a student may be contemplating suicide.
“A minimum of two gatekeepers must be trained for each school. And since it’s based on [student] population, the number goes up from there,” said Susan Berry, the Maine Department of Education’s Health Education and Health Promotion coordinator who led the school panel. “They are not experts, but they have added training about how to respond to a person who needs additional support.”
School leaders from Caribou and Hermon high schools and Deering High School in Portland were chosen to participate in the panel because each school department has additional plans in place that exceed the state law requirements, Berry said.
“They all have some kind of protocols in place,” she said of the school departments. “We recommend protocols be put into place.”
Several local organizations and individuals were honored for their work with the annual Caring About Lives in Maine Award.
“The goal of the conference has always been to pull together all the support and tools for professionals across Maine to better respond to persons at risk of suicide,” organizer Sheila Nelson, who is program manager for the Adolescent and School Health Program, said.