Cathy Comer didn’t know a thing about suicide — until her boyfriend took his own life five years ago.
“At the time I knew nothing about suicide,” said Comer, a Syracuse resident and owner of Cathy’s Caf (c) on James Street. “Unbeknownst to me, and even to him, Mike was suffering from chronic depression. Depression is different in men than it is in women, and he wasn’t acting sad — he was just angry all the time. So I didn’t recognize it as depression.”
And she certainly never thought he would hurt himself. She did know that Mike had tried to commit suicide before. She didn’t know that the previous attempt made him 50 percent more likely to try again.
“I didn’t know that, and neither did he,” she said. “We thought he was okay.”
Both believed that until Mike disappeared one day in 2004. His body was found 10 days later at his uncle’s cabin in Sullivan County.
Ever since, Comer has been trying to make sense of his death. She’s also channeled her grief into helping people who may be contemplating taking their own lives. That’s why she’s doing everything she can to reduce the stigma and raise awareness about suicide, including forming a support group for suicide survivors, The Healing Circle of CNY, and helping to start the Central New York Regional Suicide Prevention Coalition — made up of mental health professionals, physicians, elected officials and more — which encompasses Onondaga, Madison, Cortland and other counties in CNY.
Comer undertook these efforts because, in the weeks after Mike’s death, she felt lost, and there were no resources locally to help her deal with what she was feeling.
“Suicide is a life-altering experience,” Comer said. “When someone you love takes their own life, you’re never the same afterwards. When they do it to themselves, who do you blame? They’re both the victim and the murderer.”
A national health issue
Sadly, Comer’s story is hardly unique.
“Suicide is a national health issue, said Debra Graham, head of the Compassionate Hearts Support Group and chair of the Central New York Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who lost her son to suicide in 2004. “In the United States, every 16 minutes someone dies by suicide, claiming more than 32,000 lives each year. It is estimated that an attempt is made every minute, with nearly one million people attempting suicide yearly.”
According to the New York State Office of Mental Health, more people die from suicide than homicide every year in the U.S. It is the 11th leading cause of death for all Americans and the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. In 1999, the CDC reported that more teenagers and young adults died from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke and chronic lung disease combined.
It’s also a problem in New York state. Approximately 1,300 New Yorkers take their own lives every year; for every death, there are anywhere from eight to 25 attempts, according to the New York State Department of Health. Approximately 150,000 teenagers in the state attempt suicide every year; 70 succeed in taking their own lives.
Comer said Central New Yorkers are especially susceptible.
“Central New York has a higher suicide rate than the rest of the state — it’s around 7 percent in New York, but close to 13 percent here,” Comer said. “We’re not sure why. There’s speculation that it’s because this is a more rural area, especially in Oswego and Madison counties, where there isn’t as much in the way of mental health facilities.”
Suicide Prevention Week
So what can we do to lower those rates?
Nationwide, there are a number of efforts to reduce suicide, the largest being National Suicide Prevention Week, which goes from Sept. 6 to 12 this year. The week is sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology and aims to raise awareness of a significant problem and draw attention to solutions.
The bulk of activities across the country will take place Thursday Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day.
“For a number of years, the week was held in April each year,” said Anara Guard, deputy director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, “but starting in 2004, Suicide Prevention Week was moved to occur in September in order to synchronize with World Suicide Prevention Day hosted by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in collaboration with the World Health Organization. World Suicide Prevention Day represents a call for action and involvement by all governments and organizations worldwide to contribute to the cause of suicide awareness and prevention through activities, events, conferences and campaigns in each country.”
Research has demonstrated that suicide prevention and early intervention efforts can save lives. In order to address that need, New York instituted a statewide public awareness and education program that provides information kits to familiarize New Yorkers with facts about suicide, its warning signs and ways to help someone who may be considering taking his or her own life. Suicide Prevention Education and Awareness Kits, or SPEAK, has been very effective at spreading the word about the signs and risk factors of suicide, according to Melanie Puorto, director of suicide prevention for the New York State Office of Mental Health.
“SPEAK is the early suicide prevention public awareness campaign that OMH started in 2004, which has evolved into a very comprehensive effort statewide,” Puorto said. “As far as other states, we are farther along than many states in strategic planning and offering applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST) and SafeTALK (Suicide Awareness For Everyone).”
SPEAK kits include information about depression and how it affects, men, women, children, teens and older adults; crisis hotlines from across the state; facts and figures about suicide; guidance and talking points regarding how to help someone who may be considering suicide; and tips on the major warning signs.
The five regions of New York state receive a total of $68,000 a year for local suicide prevention efforts, including the above-mentioned training. In addition, OMH will be offering four informational shows on a number of suicide prevention topics on Time Warner OnDemand specifically directed towards Central New York later this fall.
It’s all part of the effort to prevent suicide through education.
“A common misconception is that nothing can be done to prevent someone from taking their own life, but prevention [efforts like SPEAK] can work,” said Mary Jean Coleman, regional director for Upstate New York and national director of field programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Coleman lost her brother to suicide when he was 17. “So can educating ourselves about mental health and about intervention, understanding that treatment can save lives and reducing stigma.”
How you can help
Indeed, everyone agreed that the most important ways to prevent suicide are to raise awareness about the risks and behaviors associated with suicide and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“Suicide is preventable,” Coleman said. “Awareness of all could lead to more people reaching out for help and treatment.”
Coleman urged people to pay attention to cries for help.
“Most persons with thoughts of suicide go unrecognized, even though most all are, directly or indirectly, requesting help,” she said. “And most people with thoughts of suicide do invite help. They extend to us ‘invitations,’ again, directly or indirectly, that they really need our help. Often these opportunities are missed, dismissed or avoided, leaving people more alone and at greater risk.”
Trainings like those offered through SPEAK, SafeTALK and ASIST can help in that regard. For further information on the signs of suicide, visit omh.state.ny.us/omhweb/suicideprevention or check out the sidebar titled “Suidide’s warning signs.”
“We need to be paying attention,” Coleman said. “We need to and can become suicide alert. We can participate in trainings that better educate us as to what those ‘invitations for help’ might look like from someone who is having thoughts of suicide. Each one of us has a responsibility to step to the plate.”
“The number one thing people need to know is that suicide is preventable,” Puorto said. “If people are educated about suicide, they can prevent it. Education about suicide will save lives.”
“My guilt comes from the idea that, had I known, I could have helped [Mike], had I known the warning signs,” she said. “What needs to happen is that we as a community need to become more aware of the signs of suicide. If people know, they can help. If the public is aware of the signs and symptoms, if they can tell who’s at risk, they can stop it.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.