Symposium stresses suicide prevention
By Josh O’Gorman
STAFF WRITER | June 27,2013
KILLINGTON — It doesn’t take much to help someone reduce his risk of suicide.
That was a major theme discussed Wednesday during the Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium. Roughly 70 people from around the state and the Northeast region gathered at the Summit Lodge to discuss ways doctors, psychologists and social services workers might save someone from himself.
With 15.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 — the most recent numbers available — Vermont’s suicide rate mirrors the national average. However, the suicide rate is on the rise. From 2000 to 2010, the suicide rate in Vermont rose 40 percent, from 12.5 to 15.8 deaths per 100,000.
The symposium was organized by the Center for Health and Learning, a Brattleboro-based group dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of children, families, schools and communities. The event was funded through a grant from the state Department of Mental Health.
Thomas Joiner — who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the director of the Department of Defense-funded Military Suicide Research Consortium, as well as a consultant for NASA’s Human Research Program — addressed how someone might become suicidal in the first place.
Joiner opened his talk by comparing suicide to the 2003 explosion of the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, caused by the failure of a piece of external heat-insulating foam.
“Methods that have worked time and time again fell apart due to a very small thing. Suicide is like this,” Joiner said, noting NASA was aware the foam had the potential for failure. “When you get used to something that can kill you, that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
According to Joiner, many people become suicidal when they do not feel like they are a member of society. He said nationwide suicide rates drop when people rally around an event as a nation, whether it’s to celebrate victory or mourn a tragedy. Sept. 11, 2001, the suicide rate dropped by 63 percent from the previous day. The day the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team won the gold in 1980, the suicide rate dropped to its lowest level in 27 years.
Joiner’s advice was this: Help people feel like they belong and are needed. During the presentation, an audience member erupted in cheers when she received news by her smartphone the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. Joiner hypothesized suicide rate would drop Wednesday as gay and lesbian Americans celebrated and also felt a sense of inclusion.
Dr. Shawn Christopher Shea, director of the Training Institute for Suicide and Clinical Interviewing, discussed the barriers people will put up to prevent their own happiness. He recalled a time he had a patient who was suffering from depression following his divorce, only to later learn the marriage had ended 10 years prior.
“A short time’s a long time when your mind just won’t let it go,” Shea said, quoting Hawaiian folk singer Jack Johnson. “It doesn’t take much to soften the world to prevent a suicide, and one of the ways to do this is to remove the bitterness.”
Shea said he used to believe that just before committing suicide, a person is focused on the past. Now, he believes the person is instead looking at the future with the belief his pain will never end.
“I would argue that happiness is a moment in time when they are confident they are capable of handling whatever will come in the future, and in doing so, they are not worried about the future or bitter about the past,” Shea said. “They are living right where every religion and philosopher tells us we should be, and that’s living in the present.”