Health Care

Vermont launches awareness project amid record-high suicide rates

With suicide rates on the rise in Vermont — including a record-breaking year in 2021 — the state has launched a new website and education campaign geared toward helping the public understand how to intervene before a suicide attempt.

Facing Suicide, a collaboration between the Vermont Department of Health and Department of Mental Health, provides links to resources about prevention and mental health treatment. Through data and firsthand accounts, the campaign aims to clear up common misconceptions about suicide. The effort is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The stakes are higher than ever: In 2021, Vermont reported 142 suicides, the highest yearly total ever recorded. There were 54 suicides from January to June of 2022, putting this year on pace with the state’s three-year average, according to the health department. 

Suicides remained relatively low in 2020, which experts believe may be due to people showing support for one another during the early days of the pandemic, said Thomas Delaney, a pediatric mental health researcher at the University of Vermont. “What we might be seeing now is a rebound,” he said.

“We know for a lot of people there have been very serious mental health impacts around grief and financial struggles, changes in their lifestyle, involuntary changes in our lives. There's all sorts of stuff,” Delaney said.

Vermonters continue to struggle financially, but many of the programs that aided them have ended or slowed, he said. Another risk factor for suicide is social isolation, which has been an element of the pandemic since the beginning but continues to impact certain Vermonters, particularly in rural areas.

Older Vermonters, who have been some of the most heavily affected socially during the pandemic, also reported higher-than-average rates of suicides so far in 2022, the health department reported. 

Suicide deaths have generally increased since 2007, according to the department, although the total has varied year to year.

The majority of suicide victims are men, who are more likely to use firearms than other methods like poisoning. Delaney said suicides are an underappreciated problem when discussing gun policy.

“About 90% of the gun deaths in Vermont are suicides,” he said. “So it's very important to talk about homicide and mass shootings, but when we're talking about gun deaths, we're talking overwhelmingly about suicide.”

Delaney said research suggests that stricter laws about purchasing and owning firearms tend to correlate with decreasing suicides. But even simple methods like storing your firearms safely can be a surprisingly effective prevention strategy.

Many people in the public think that suicides are well-planned decisions, and blocking someone from using a certain method would turn that person toward another, he said. But in reality, research shows that suicide attempts are often spur-of-the-moment decisions brought on by acute mental health crises or life problems. 

“When you just introduce steps, like having a firearm in a lockbox — versus having it loose, not secured — as you add steps to increase firearm safety, suicide deaths go down,” he said. Experts also recommend keeping medications in a lockbox if someone at high risk of suicide is living in the household.

The Vermont Department of Health also recommends secure storage of firearms and ammunition. “It’s really (about) putting time and space between someone thinking about, maybe thinking about suicide or making a decision to taking that action,” said Stephanie Busch, the department’s injury prevention director.

Another way to intervene in a moment of crisis is to call or text Vermont’s crisis hotlines by dialing 988 or texting VT to 741741. Busch said the lines are judgment-free ways to seek help or connect with someone if you’re contemplating suicide or just having a bad day.

The reasons people attempt suicide are “complex,” Busch said, and the response to the rise in suicides needs to be too. She said the Facing Suicide campaign is geared toward helping Vermonters understand how to have conversations with each other about mental health and how to recognize risk factors for suicide.

The campaign also features the stories of Vermonters who have struggled with suicidal thoughts or mental health challenges. 

Busch said the site aims to address the stigma around suicide: “How do we build resiliency and make connections so that people can ask for help without fear?”

Delaney said that only half of people who take their own life had depression, so it’s important to take those universal precautions like recognizing warning signs, “because you know what, anybody can have just a terrible day.”

“Think about people who might be at risk, maybe going through a divorce or a separation or using substances more, using substances differently, people who are struggling with employment or relationships. These are all people that can be checked in on,” he said.

If you are in crisis or need help for someone else, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text VT to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

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Erin Petenko

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