This extended winter has taken an obvious toll on Vermonters. Moods are swinging. Signs of stress are everywhere, especially among those with empty wallets wrung dry for more heating fuel, or even groceries. We all search the central Vermont landscape for robins and crocuses and other hopeful signs of spring.
Cold weather, by virtue of its challenges, can take an emotional toll. That difficulty can turn to thoughts of hopelessness and, unfortunately, suicide. Over the last year, too many central Vermonters have been affected by the suicide of a family member or friend. Across central Vermont, they have been neighbors and colleagues.
In addition, in a tragic statistical uptick, there have been more reported incidents of domestic violence ending in murder-suicides across Vermont. As recently as this month, one central Vermont community had three aggravated domestic assaults in one week that yielded arrests and multiple felony charges. It makes the heart ache to learn about these tragedies in our towns and cities. The ripple effects touch lives and, when it is someone we know, we often think back on whether there were signs of struggle.
In the wake, we often blame ourselves for not communicating better, doing more, seeing the signs. As a society, we really do not talk about suicide, and we need to.
According to officials at Washington County Mental Health Services, the agency’s 24/7 hotline receives up to 16,000 calls a year. This time of year — and specifically the month of March – there is a historic spike in the number of those calls. More central Vermonters are reaching out for help or seeking help for someone the caller knows. That is as it should be. That number — 16,000 a year for one small region of the state — is staggering. The hotline and mental health services clearly are necessary.
According to a report looking at the state’s statistics from 2012, there were 83 suicides in Vermont. Of those people, two were minors. (In the last 12 months, six teens have committed suicide in central Vermont alone; three were veterans.) The state average is 85 suicides a year.
A 2005 benchmark report titled “The Vermont Suicide Prevention Platform” said the state average at that time was 78. Clearly, the last few years have been a struggle.
Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in Vermont and the 10th-leading cause in the United States, according to the National Institute for Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s sobering news. What it means is that we need to take suicide prevention seriously. As a community, we need to remove the stigma. We must look for the signs.
If an individual speaks of being hopeless or exhibits changes in behavior or moods; if a person starts to act recklessly or engage in risky behavior or starts abusing drugs or alcohol; and if a person seems to be withdrawing from family and friends, talk to that person, or call for help.
If symptoms become more emergent, if the person makes the statement about wanting to commit suicide, if they seek access to a means, if they say they are thinking about suicide, or if they use a computer, phone or Facebook to drop hints, if they have a plan or start giving things away, get help immediately.
There is a commonly held and mistaken myth that people who threaten suicide won’t do it. Every single case needs to be taken as seriously as the next.
Of course, prevention is one thing. Grief after a suicide is another that needs attention and care.
When a suicide occurs, there’s also lots of help for central Vermonters. Family and friends are urged to reach out to one another and talk. Seek grief counselors — offered locally by Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice (223-1878) and Washington County Mental Health Services (229-0591).
It’s not a time to focus on assigning self-blame or feeling guilty. It is more important to learn and look for the signs so we, as a community, can continue to prevent suicide. Paying close attention to one another — family, friends, neighbors and colleagues — and talking about those things around us that give our lives quality allow us to help those who are struggling, especially during this longer-than-usual, colder-than-normal winter — and now spring.
Fortunately, warmer, kinder, better days are ahead.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24/7, can be used anywhere in the United States and connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website is www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Locally, for help call Washington County Mental Health Services at 229-0591 or, in Orange County, the Clara Martin Suicide Hotline at 800-639-6360.
Other resources include:
National Veterans Hotline, 800-273-8255
Domestic violence hotline, 800-228-7395
Sexual assault hotline, 800-489-7273
Outright Vermont hotline (support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth) 800-452-2428, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Parents Assistance Line, 800-727-3687
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