By Jasmin Singh
The North Carolina House of Representatives passed a resolution Wednesday authorizing legislative staff to study ways to prevent suicide among minors and veterans in the state.
Lawmakers listened as Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Charlotte), one of the resolution’s sponsors, struggled to contain her emotions as she described her son’s struggle with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
“My experience of my son’s suicidal ideation and unpredictable paranoid behavior at a young age was quite difficult for a young mother like myself,” Cunningham said.
The resolution’s easy passage means it’s more likely the legislature will fund a study of the issue during the interim period before next year’s long session, which begins in January.
In North Carolina, there were a total of 3,536 suicides and 19,754 self-inflicted injury hospitalizations between 2009 and 2011, according to “The Burden of Suicide in North Carolina,” a report prepared by the state Department of Health and Human Services in 2013.
The resolution recommends requiring health care providers to complete training in suicide-assessment treatment and management as part of their continuing-education requirements. Other professionals, such as social workers, educators and coaches who are in contact with people at risk for suicide, would also have to be trained in prevention.
Cunningham said people that care for loved ones with suicidal thoughts go through difficulties on a daily basis.
“I was reminded of the loneliness and the frustration many families endure during these unpredictable times,” she said. “This journey is a difficult walk, and I still today cannot understand what my son experienced in his mind or what his thoughts were day to day.”
A complicated issue
Rep. Grier Martin (D-Raleigh), a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, addressed the issue of suicide among military personnel.
“As you expect, folks deployed to a combat zone are suffering from suicide,” Martin said. “But we are finding out that those deployed to a noncombat zone are also suffering.”
Between 2009 and 2011, a total of 505 North Carolina veterans died from suicide, with a suicide rate 150 percent that of the general population, according to the DHHS report.
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Weddington), also a veteran, said that while leading a first-aid group in the military, he saw too many lives lost to suicide.
“You lift down a guy you’ve just been on parade or maybe worked with just an hour ago,” he said. “I had to take him down from a shower stall where he had taken his own life.”
Horn said war is a terrible thing, but that there was something much worse.
“The most terrible thing is to be without hope,” he said. “There are those out there – friends, family, neighbors, people we meet on the street – that are actually living a nightmare inside themselves.”
About a third of veteran suicide victims were receiving treatment for mental illness at the time they took their lives, the DHHS report said.
Too many young people
Rep. Beverly Earle (D-Charlotte) said an alarming number of young people are committing suicide.
“Suicide and suicidal behaviors are serious problems in the community,” she said. “They can be devastating and detrimental to the victim and to the families.”
According to the DHHS report, among young people between the ages of 10 and 24 there were 422 suicides and 5,167 self-inflicted injury hospitalizations between 2009 and 2011.
More than half of suicides among youth and young adults were carried out using firearms.
“This isn’t a bill about guns, but it is about guns,” Earle said.
“Even more disturbing, in my opinion, is a survey that shows one in every five high school students has considered suicide and one in 12 has attempted,” she said.
The most common circumstance for victims aged 10 to 24 was a crisis within the past two weeks. Mental health circumstances were also common in youth and young adults, including a depressed mood, with almost a third having a current mental health problem and around a third having had mental health treatment in the past.
‘Many others that walk this journey’
Cunningham said she is still learning from her son’s battle.
“I just know that I was allowed to walk this journey with him to a place of hope, courage, lighthearted laugher, smiles and eventually adulthood,” she said.
Cunningham said she is grateful for the help she received for her son but knows there are “many others that walk this journey.”
“Some finish the journey and survive, and others endure the hurt and loss,” she said.
Rep. Chris Whitmire (R-Rosman) said there is some good news.
“Most suicide victims do illustrate symptoms that if recognized can lead to some interventions that ultimately can mitigate or prevent the devastating effects,” he said. “This is an awareness of a means to potentially prevent great tragedy.”
Cunningham said lawmakers should become “the beacon of light” to protect those most vulnerable – youth and veterans.
“Let us seize the moment to lift the burden of suicide in North Carolina by educating as many health care providers, police officers, educators, social workers, clergy and community advocates that touch the masses of the people of our great state,” she said.
North Carolina suicides 2009-11:
Statewide – 3,536
Youth – 422
Veterans – 505
Self-inflicted injury hospitalizations 2009-11:
Statewide – 19,754
Youth – 5,167
Self-inflicted injury ED visits 2009-12:
Statewide – 38,605
Youth – 13,331
Source: “The Burden of Suicide in North Carolina”