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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 12, 2009
Suicide aftermath: Words open the door to healing
Sadly, some things haven’t changed much.
Eight years ago, when we devoted our entire front page and much of our newspaper to suicide prevention and education, the facts seemed stark and stunning: Almost all people, more than 90 percent, who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental or substance-abuse disorder or both, and the majority have a depressive illness, according to the national Institute of Mental Health.
Today, those numbers are the same.
So are the numbers for people who complete suicide each year, over 30,000 Americans kill themselves, 8,000 are youth between the ages of 10 and 24.
A universe is shattered with each death. Friends and family mourn. They feel anger and confusion, sorrow and pain unrelenting, almost unbearable pain.
“It’s hard to even get a comb through your hair,” Deena Lespage told us this week. Her teenage daughter lost a dear friend when Andrea Guido took her life on Oct. 8. “Even if they’re 17 years old, they’re still little kids inside, and hurting,” Lespage said.
We wrote in this space eight years ago that, as a society, we feel more comfortable dealing with the physical, with what’s visible and obvious. We need to understand that mental anguish is equally as real and can be fatal. It is not evil; it is illness, related to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Psychiatric treatment can be lifesaving.
If someone does die of suicide, we should support the survivors. In some ways, we should treat it like other deaths, reporting the facts in the newspaper, for example. In other ways, we should realize it carries additional burdens for those left behind. We should lend the survivors a willing ear, we wrote. And, while mourning the death, we should still celebrate the life of the suicide victim.
It is easier to write those words than it is to live them. Sadly, we’ve written about more suicides since then. The pain goes on.
But something has changed in Guilderland, something important. People are talking about suicide. Not behind closed doors, not in hushed tones. But out in the open, listening to mental-health experts who can offer help.
A forum was held in Town Hall on Tuesday night; about 150 people came. “I want to acknowledge the pain and grief in this room,” said one of the panelists as she surveyed the somber faces before her. None of the six experts offered false hope or easy answers. Each of the women, though, spoke with compassion and offered insight. Practical advice was given on signs to look for and who to call for help. We’ve reported on the forum at length to provide a permanent record for the community.
Panelist Marianne Reid spoke from the heart. She lost her brother two years ago to suicide. “We have these ‘S’ words not the one you’re thinking of shame, sorrow, stigma…and silence,” she said.
Some of the shame and stigma lifted on Tuesday night as people spoke and heard the “S” word they were thinking about suicide.
We credit the Guilderland School District with handling the suicide in a forthright manner from the start. The high school principal, Brian McCann, sent home a letter on Oct. 9, the day after Andrea died, letting parents know about the suicide. Superintendent John McGuire then wrote home to parents on Nov. 3 about the difficulties students, families, and staff members had been facing and about the worries over suicide contagion.
Mental health problems used to be “a dark secret,” McGuire told us Tuesday night after the forum. “You didn’t talk about mental illness, or depression,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to deal with it more openly.”
Educators are not experts in suicide, McGuire said, so they “reached out to people who had expertise.”
We credit those experts from the county’s Department for Children, Youth and Families; from the state’s Office of Mental Health; from the Capital District Psychiatric Center; from the Samaritan hotline; and from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for coming together to share their knowledge and support.
Albany County Executive Michael Breslin opened the forum, which the county sponsored, by saying, “We are keeping track of what goes on tonight…to tell other school districts and communities…We need to identify situations that create risk…together, we can do so much more than we can by ourselves.”
So we credit our government for being responsive to an all-too-often unperceived community need.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we credit Andrea Guido’s family for being so honest about the circumstances of her death. After Andrea died, as we were working on her obituary, we could hear the family’s pain as they described her as “incredibly beautiful, inside and out.”
“My husband is an open person,” Angela Guido, Andrea’s stepmother, told us. “He wants to do anything he can to help any other kids that are having problems.”
We believe the openness that led to the forum will lead to solutions. One of the Guilderland students who attended the session on Tuesday night, Hannah Palmeri, told us afterward, “I’m glad I got to hear this…I do see some of the signs…I think I’d do something about it,” she said, stating that she would talk to her mother.
Another person who attended was Lespage. Her daughter is helping to plan a bowl-athon this Sunday, following guidelines outlined at the forum, as a memorial to Andrea Guido.
“These kids are hurting so badly, it’s difficult to get though a day at school,” said Lespage. “I’m glad they did outreach at the forum. The community needs to understand, these kids are hurting badly and, as parents, we’re hurting, too…Like they said at the forum, you can talk about cancer and other diseases. We ought to be able to talk about this. There would be fewer ramifications.”
She is right.
There is much to be done.
Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor