MONTPELIER — The rate at which Vermonters take their own lives is more than a third higher than the national average, and suicide claims as many lives in the state each year as traffic accidents, but the problem has largely remained in the shadows, advocates and lawmakers said Wednesday.
“All those young people, if they died in car accidents, there’d be big headlines and people would take huge steps about youth drinking and driving and youth driving,” said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who said she survived a suicide attempt while suffering through years of depression.
When it comes to suicide, “We hide it, and when we hide it as something shameful, we don’t address it. People are not aware of the toll that it takes,” she said.
Donahue and other supporters of increased funding for suicide prevention programs spoke at a forum at the Statehouse.
Maria Mercedes Avila of the Vermont Child Health Improvement Program at the University of Vermont said the state annually sees about 16.8 suicides per 100,000 residents, versus a national rate of 12.4.
Suicides and traffic fatalities both typically number between 75 and 100 in Vermont each year, officials said.
No one was sure why Vermont’s rate would be higher than the national figure, but there was broad agreement that the state needs to expand prevention programs.
JoEllen Tarralo-Falk, director of the Vermont Youth Suicide Prevention Project at the Brattleboro-based Center for Health and Learning, said she hopes the state will boost funding this year for youth suicide prevention programs from its current $50,000 to $150,000 to make up for dwindling federal funding.
“Our job is to elevate the public knowledge and awareness about suicide as a public health issue,” she told the forum.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has already called for $50,000 more to fund adult suicide prevention programs in his budget this year.
Wednesday’s discussion included stories told by parents of young people who ended their own lives.
Kelly Short, of Brattleboro, told of her daughter Leah, who was a sophomore in high school when she died. She was speaking out now to help other young people, Short said.
“I want them to know that she felt the same as they did, whether they were pretty or popular. She was all of that, and she still struggled and didn’t feel good about herself,” she said.
Vermont loses about nine young people — ages 11 to 23 — to suicide each year, according to conference organizers. Across all ages, females are more likely to try to kill themselves, while males are more likely to be successful.
Donahue, a member of the House Human Services Committee who follows mental health issues closely, said men tend to use more lethal means, such as a firearm or hanging. Women are more likely to use pills or to cut themselves, Donahue said.
“Women try more; men succeed more,” Donahue said.
One lawmaker is pushing legislation that would get at part of the problem by imposing a 48-hour waiting period when someone tries to buy a weapon in a gun shop. Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, said time for “cooling off” could prevent some impulsive suicides.
Donahue, however, said lax gun laws in Vermont mean many residents have guns at their disposal at home. She said she had seen no evidence that Till’s proposal, if enacted, would make a difference.
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