By Nick Minarik and Anders Ax
Eileen Casey had been home a few days in the summer of 2010 after returning from the hospital and was watching TV together with her son, Andy. She told him that she was going to bed. Andy said he loved her, just like he did every night.
“Then I wake up to all the notes and a map where he was,” said a solemn Casey in a recent phone interview. “I still can’t believe it. All of us missed the warning signs.”
The Castleton State College student’s body was found that morning in the woods near their northern Vermont home. His mom said he suffered from depression and took antidepressants, but in the days leading to his suicide he stopped taking the pills.
“They were bothering his stomach so much,” she said.
Andy’s circumstance is an occurrence that has become too common, brought to light again recently with the suicide of Castleton sophomore Brian Dagle. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds following accidents and homicides, respectively, and according to a 2008 report by the American Association of Suicidology, it makes up 13.3 percent of deaths in this age group.
The underlying cause of most suicides, depression, affects more than 19 million American adults aged 18 and over. That represents 10 percent of American adults, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both Dagle and Casey suffered from depression.
A study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration estimates 900,875 suicide attempts were made in the United States in 2008, 25 times the number of deaths by suicide.
As a state, Vermont ranks 12th in the nation with a suicide rate of 15.1 percent per 100,000 people.
Cory Gould, president of the Vermont Chapter of the AFSP, has spent decades trying to reduce those statistics. Her career has taught her that there are always signs of danger, and all signs should always be taken seriously.
“Any behavior change that makes people go, ‘Hmm, he’s a little weird,’ that’s when you ask (if something is wrong),” Gould said.
Although something as simple as a change in attitude can be indicative of larger underlying problems such as depression, there are specific warning signs you especially want to look out for, she said.
According to the AFSP, an unrelenting low mood, withdrawal, uncharacteristic sleep problems, uncharacteristic impulsiveness and risk taking, random or sudden purchase of a firearm, or giving away prized possessions are all signs of serious depression.
Gould says that if you notice any change like these, “the thing to do is ask.” The person most likely to stop a suicide is the closest person to the potential victim.
“This is your buddy, you’re in the position to help them,” she said.
Casey agrees that interpersonal communication is essential in suicide prevention, but feels that modern technology is hurting that. By communicating primarily through text, facial expressions and body language are lost.
“There’s no emotion, no connection, no intimacy – just words,” Casey said.
When the time comes to communicate with someone in need, Gould encourages everyone to use the QPR method: Question, Persuade, Refer.
“QPR is to suicide prevention as CPR is to someone having a heart attack,” Gould said.
“You say ‘Hey, something’s different about you.’ Usually… they’re going to answer affirmatively. They’re waiting to be asked. So you ask, and be ready to receive the answer,” she said. While a negative answer may seem like a relief at first, she encourages everyone not to rest with the “no” if there truly is reason for concern.
The next step is to persuade the potential victim that their mindset is temporary and will pass. According to afsp.org, it is very important not to argue someone out of suicide. Rather, let the person know you care. Perhaps most importantly, avoid the temptation to say, “You have so much to live for,” or “Your suicide will hurt your family.”
Next, refer your peer to a mental health professional or specialist. You should remain supportive of the person you’re helping throughout the entire process.
CSC’s Wellness Center is making an effort to increase awareness by offering a new program, the Student Support Network. It will provide more in-depth training on how to recognize signs of depression and methods to help those in need.
Casey feels that if the suicide continues to be a “huge secret no one talks about,” awareness will not be raised and it will remain a social taboo.
“We have to talk about it,” Gould stressed. “And until we talk about it, it will remain a dark secret.”
Kimberly Vincent and Joe Bonasera also contributed to this report.