May 26, 2013

Ending the silence about suicide

A 16-year-old's death last month -- in a state where the threat to young people is especially alarming -- has loved ones and other Mainers calling for a greater willingness to talk about mental illness, depression and pain.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SHAPLEIGH - In the weeks since Haley Plaisted committed suicide, her family and friends have struggled to understand why the vibrant girl they knew wanted to end her life.

click image to enlarge

Shapleigh resident Rebecca Liberty struggles with her emotions recently as she holds a picture of her daughter Haley Plaisted, who took her own life April 8.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Haley Plaisted’s mother, Rebecca Liberty of Shapleigh, accompanied by her boyfriend, David Pillsbury, watches as balloons rise in tribute to the daughter she lost early last month. Liberty is holding a portrait of Haley that was created by the teen’s classmates at Sanford High School.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

AT A GLANCE

From 2005 to 2009, there were 901 suicides in Maine, including 93 among people younger than 24.

The average number of youth suicides in Maine from 2005 to 2009 was 19 per year.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death for Mainers ages 15-34.

More male youths died by suicide than female. Of every five suicides, four were males.

From 2005 to 2009, the leading method of youth suicide was suffocation, which accounted for 46 percent of suicide deaths. During that time period, a firearm was used in 40 percent of youth suicides.

13 percent of high school seniors have seriously considered suicide; 9 percent of high school seniors have planned their suicide; and 8 percent have attempted suicide.

Source: Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention

WARNING SIGNS

Talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead

Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun

Talking about a specific suicide plan

Feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

Feeling trapped, desperate or needing to escape from an intolerable situation

Having the feeling of being a burden to others

Feeling humiliated

Having intense anxiety and/or panic attacks

Losing interest in things, or losing the ability to experience pleasure

Insomnia

Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family and others

Acting irritable or agitated

Showing rage, or talking about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected, whether or not the situations the person describes seem real

Individuals who show such behavior should be evaluated for possible suicide risk by a medical doctor or mental health professional.

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

NEED HELP? IT'S JUST A PHONE CALL AWAY:

In Maine, immediate help is available 24 hours a day by calling (888) 568-1112.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available by calling (800) 273-8255.

If you need immediate help, call 911.

As they flip through photos of Plaisted with her arms around her sisters and riding on a dirt bike, they question if they could have done more to help her through the depression she rarely wanted to talk about. They wonder if bullying pushed her to the point she wanted to die, or if a breakup with her boyfriend was more than she could bear. 

They have found no simple answers, a common situation facing those dealing with the complexities of suicide. 

"I don't know how she got to that point," Plaisted's mother, Rebecca Liberty, said as she sat in her kitchen looking at photos of her youngest daughter. "She wasn't in her right mind. That child did not want to die." 

Plaisted took her own life on April 8, three days before her 17th birthday. It was a shock to her family -- they say she never said she was thinking about suicide -- but followed two years where Plaisted struggled with depression, bullying and a tumultuous relationship. She tried to kill herself for the first time in early 2012.

As emotional stories about teens who died by suicide grab headlines across the country, experts say people are starting to realize that communities need to have open conversations about suicide without fear it will prompt more people to take their own lives. Those conversations are particularly relevant in Maine, which has the highest rate of youth suicide in the Northeast.

At least three teens have committed suicide in Maine this year, prompting both anti-suicide and anti-bullying vigils and educational sessions for students, teachers and administrators grappling with how to deal with the shock and grief that follow suicide deaths. Gov. Paul LePage recently signed a law that requires the Department of Education to adopt standards for suicide prevention and education training in schools.

But while it is important to talk about suicide causes and prevention, experts say much of the recent media coverage that blames suicide solely on bullying oversimplifies an issue that is far more complex.

"The bullying discussion has had an effect on bringing suicide out into a more open place where it can be talked about," said Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. However, she said, "I think much of the discussion has not been helpful because it has created a narrative in the public mind that youth suicide is a byproduct of bullying."

Maine has a higher rate of youth suicide than the national average and the highest rate in the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2005 to 2009, there were 901 suicides in Maine, of which 93 were committed by people younger than 24. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Mainers ages 15 to 34. On average, there is one suicide every two days in Maine.

Greg Marley, who oversees the Maine Suicide Prevention Program, said youth suicide rates peaked in the late 1990s, after a decades-long increase. After the peak, suicide rates remained relatively flat until around 2005, when rates in both Maine and across the country started to rise again.

Marley said it is hard to determine why there has been an increase across the country, but said rural states like Maine generally have higher suicide rates than urban areas. That is because people tend to be more isolated from social support and professional intervention, have easier access to guns and live in a culture where fewer people seek treatment for mental illness, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Family members and friends of Haley Plaisted release balloons on her 17th birthday, three days after her suicide last month, near a friend’s house in Springvale. Loved ones are still struggling to find answers for why she chose to end her life.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

  


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