Crisis center plans outreach on suicide prevention

May 01, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Spring may be a season of new beginnings, but crisis counselors say it also can be a time of increased risk for those who may be suicidal.

"Experts believe it has to do with the change of season, for one," said Lori Y. James, a crisis intervention coordinator for Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc. in Columbia. "Springtime is a time of more expectations from people," resulting in emotional pressures, she said.

In an attempt to address the risk of suicide, counselors from the 23-year-old center will take part in national Suicide Prevention Week today through Saturday, with visits to schools and other efforts intended to publicize suicide prevention.

Suicide Prevention Week is sponsored by the Denver-based American Association of Suicidology, a national group that includes suicide experts, prevention specialists and survivors of those who have committed suicide.

Every 17 minutes, someone commits suicide in the United States, Ms. James said.

"The issue of suicide is just not held to one particular population, age group or race," she said. "It crosses all boundaries. It's an issue for everyone."

In 1991, 30,810 Americans killed themselves, according to the most recent statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics. That same year, there were 429 suicides in Maryland.

The most common suicide method was by firearm, followed by hanging and inhaling fumes from a motor vehicle's exhaust pipe.

And young people aren't immune -- suicide is the third-leading cause of death for adolescents, surpassed only by vehicle accidents and homicides.

Last year, there were 79 suicides among those ages 11 to 24 in Maryland. Two of them occurred in Howard County.

This year, there have already been two youth suicides in the county, including that of a 15-year-old boy in February, Ms. James said.

The issue of suicide gained wide attention last month when Kurt Cobain, lead singer for alternative rock group Nirvana, shot himself in the head at age 27.

A week later, indicted Baltimore City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean was treated for a near-fatal overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs.

After the rock star's death, the counselors at Grassroots who staff the center's crisis hot lines received about six calls related to his death. Callers said that Mr. Cobain's suicide had made them think of killing themselves.

Ms. James blames publicity about the rock star's death for some of that.

"It almost seems to glamorize the issue because of the amount of press [he] got," she said. "People called and said, 'Kurt went out big.' "

In responding to the young callers, "We tried to get them to look at their situation and see their choices," Ms. James said.

Grassroots, best known for its homeless shelter, also provides youth crisis and general crisis hot lines 24 hours a day.

Its youth crisis hot line receives calls from throughout Central Maryland, making it the busiest of six such hot lines in the state. Callers can discuss suicide, abuse, family and peer problems and other issues.

To help survivors of people who have committed suicide, Grassroots in March started a support group called Seasons. The group is intended to help people cope with and understand their loss.

This week, counselors will train Grassroots shelter workers in suicide prevention; visit county schools to talk about suicide and prevention; and train workers who deal with juvenile offenders at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill.

The important thing to remember is that suicides are preventable, Ms. James said.

Here are some warning signs that Grassroots counselors use in identifying a potentially suicidal person:

* If someone talks about committing suicide.

* If someone has trouble eating or sleeping.

* If someone withdraws from friends and social activities.

* If someone takes unnecessary risks.

* If someone is preoccupied with death and dying.

* If someone exhibits drastic changes in behavior.

Grassroots counselors suggest that anyone concerned that a person might be suicidal should contact a community mental health agency, a private therapist or a suicide and crisis center.

Further information is available by calling the youth crisis hot line at 1-800-422-0009.

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