AUGUSTA — The signs of an impending suicide might be faint if they’re visible at all and you might have only a single chance to see them before it’s too late.
That was the message that a long line of people who have lost loved ones to suicide shared Monday with the Legislature’s Education Committee during an afternoon of heart-rending testimony about lives that could have been saved by a little intervention.
At issue was a public hearing on a bill titled “ An Act to Increase Suicide Awareness and Prevention in Maine Public Schools,” sponsored by Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay. According to Gilbert and others, Maine has the 11th highest suicide rate in the nation. His bill attracted 103 co-sponsors, which constitutes more than half the Legislature.
“At any given time, there could be two young people in a classroom in Maine thinking about ending their lives,” said Gilbert.
The bill would require the Department of Education to adopt standards for schools regarding suicide prevention training, including awareness education for everybody and more advanced prevention and intervention training for at least two people in every school district.
One of the insidious truths about suicide, according to several people who testified, is that oftentimes the signs that a person is considering suicide are invisible to that person’s loved ones. Having more people paying attention can only increase the odds of an intervention, according to Teresa Rael of Winslow, who lost her son to suicide in 1995.
“We need help,” she said. “The more eyes there are to see, ears to hear and voices to question, the more lives will be saved. What we do from this day forward might be able to spare another mother from having to live with the pain of losing a child from suicide.”
Cheryl DiCara, who recently retired as coordinator of the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program, said the training only goes so far but if it results in someone stopping a suicide, it is worth it.
“We’re not talking about training bus drivers to be counselors,” she said. “We’re talking about helping them recognize the signs. If you do support and pass this bill, I firmly believe that it will save lives.”
Grace Eaton of Jay, a teacher whose son Glen died by suicide in 1997, said he was an honor student, accomplished athlete and a person who almost no one sensed to be struggling with so much inner strife. One of the boy’s coaches noticed he seemed depressed, but when Eaton asked him about it, he said he was OK. He was also known to joke around with friends about suicide, but they didn’t take him seriously. Some training in recognizing those signs could have made any of those people a hero in Glen’s life, said Eaton.
“He didn’t ask for help,” said Eaton. “Glen chose to die. We were unaware of his deep depression and his thoughts about suicide.”
Nancy Thompson of Cape Elizabeth, lost her son, Tim, to suicide in 2004. She said that in retrospect she realizes how unprepared she was to confront the issue of suicide.
“This legislation will teach our school personnel what they need to know,” said Thompson. “They will be trained how to ask the right questions and will ask those questions. By asking these questions, they can save lives. My hopes and my dreams will have come true if I wouldn’t have to continue to tell my Timmy story throughout the state.”
There is not yet an estimate of what the suicide prevention training would cost or who would pay for it, but some said that for once in the debate over a bill in the Legislature, that doesn’t matter. One of those people was Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents Maine public school teachers.
“The concerns about whatever funding is necessary are inconsequential to the problem that may be solved,” he said.