If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at (888) 568-1112 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
As the news circulated on Nov. 20 that Bangor High School had announced a student’s suicide over the school’s public address system, Bangor City Council Chair Clare Davitt was prompted to publicly criticize the school’s response.
It was more than what she was hearing from parents that caused her to speak out. It was her personal experience with suicidal thoughts and her two suicide attempts.
Davitt, who became the City Council chair earlier this month, has Bipolar II disorder, which is characterized by swings between depression and mood elevation.
“Not every person who is suicidal has mental illness and not every person with mental illness is suicidal, but in my case, when I was 13, I attempted suicide,” she said. “And then I, actually in 2014, also attempted again. And so to me, you have to talk about it.”
Last year, Davitt voluntarily sought treatment at Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor because she recognized the signs that she was again at risk.
“I didn’t attempt suicide, but the tape that says, ‘Kill yourself,’ was playing again,” she said.
Davitt, who works at the Bangor Public Library as a reference librarian, is a board member of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
After hearing that the high school’s email informing parents of the student’s death by suicide didn’t include links to resources to help parents discuss suicide with their kids, she tweeted a link to the “After a Suicide” toolkit to Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb, knowing that Twitter would be the best way to reach her.
The tool kit, developed by three national organizations with expertise on responding to suicide, recommends that school communications about suicide refer parents to resources that can help them discuss suicide with their children. And it strongly advises against breaking the news of a suicide to students over the PA system.
“It just really worries me when I hear people saying the resources aren’t getting to the people that need them, whether it’s faculty, students, parents or the community at large,” she said.
The superintendent’s response to Davitt on Twitter — in which she said the school was using the toolkit — was the only public statement she had made so far about the student’s suicide. Davitt pushed back and said that she had heard concerns, including about the announcement over the loudspeaker.
She called the use of the PA system “horrifying and incredibly inappropriate.”
Her decision to speak about the larger issue of suicide publicly was not an easy one, but she decided she had a responsibility as City Council chair and a librarian to share her story.
“Mental illness has always been an issue for me and I’ve spoken out more and more about it, but until very recently, I hadn’t talked about being a suicide survivor because that’s even harder to get to,” Davitt said. “But people need to know that that’s real and it could be anyone in your life.”
When Davitt was still conflicted about whether she should share her experience with mental illness publicly, she was encouraged by fellow members of the Bangor City Council, particularly Laura Supica.
“I believe that people elect us to hear our voices,” Supica said. “She doesn’t have to speak out about it, but if she wants to, she should speak out and we should support her.”
Davitt acknowledges the privilege that she has — that many do not — to speak publicly about mental illness and surviving suicide. She has support from her employer and the City Council.
“Even more now, I have the security to say it when others can’t,” she said.