Spreading the Net
Suicide may be this country's most ignored cause of death

At age 31, Jeffery Gutin was a young trial lawyer in Connecticut, successful and happy, with a promising future before him. Or so it seemed. Then, in 1995, he took his own life. What had gone wrong?

Gutin's parents, Irving and Barbara, were desperate for an explanation. How could their son have reached such depths of despair? Were there signs they just missed? Why didn't he reach out for help?

"It turns out there are just not a lot of answers," says Irving Gutin. What they did learn is that suicide is very prevalent among young men. It is, in fact, the second leading cause of death for men ages 25 to 34 in this country.

Despite their anguish, the Gutins began to see that there is something about the way men are raised in our culture that makes them vulnerable to suicide and that this vulnerability increases with age. They also learned that suicide is far more widespread than most of us imagine and that it cuts across gender (women make up about 20 percent of the suicides each year), age, race and socioeconomics. Most importantly, they learned that suicide can often be prevented.

Our society is strangely silent about suicide. Each year in America, about 30,000 people take their own lives. To put this number in perspective, consider that during the Vietnam War, the United States lost about 58,000 soldiers. The psychological scars of that war continue to weigh on the American psyche. During the same 10-year period, however, the country also lost some 220,000 Americans to suicide, a tragedy that has received little public scrutiny. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, took the lives of close to 3,000 Americans and have shaped public discourse and American foreign policy in profound ways. Since that date, 90,000 people have committed suicide, and yet it's hard to find anyone talking publicly about the problem.

The World Health Organization estimates that suicide outweighs war as a cause of death by a ratio of 7 to 2. In the United States, there are twice as many deaths by suicide as there are from HIV/AIDS each year. In New Hampshire, suicides outnumber homicides nearly six to one. And suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses.

At UNH, David Cross, director of the Counseling Center, says the university—like colleges everywhere—has seen a significant increase in the demand for the center's services in the past five years. In addition to counseling and crisis management, his office runs training sessions for professors, hall directors and hot-line responders in an effort to "get more adults on the lookout." Tragically, some students never get the help they need. UNH averages one suicide per year, according to Cross, including the recent death of a 21-year-old in her off-campus apartment.

Preventing the tragedy of suicide, Cross and others agree, requires a network of support. "My hope is to save one life," says Irving Gutin, who, with his wife, established a foundation to support suicide prevention.

Saving lives is at the heart of a number of UNH studies and research efforts. When Effie Malley '78 needed advice on how to create the "broadest possible network of support" as part of her work as the head of the Suicide Prevention Partnership, a shared venture between the Gutin Foundation and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, she turned to Ned Helms '71G, director of UNH's New Hampshire Institute for Health Policy and Practice. Helms suggested they look at the needs of social workers. While 93 percent of social workers questioned told the UNH Survey Center they had clients who were suicidal, only 21 percent had received any formal suicide prevention training. As a result of these discussions, last year UNH developed and tested a postgraduate suicide prevention curriculum.

"When we started the project, we discovered that most social workers had little training in this area," says Holly DeBlois, a UNH clinical assistant professor in health management and policy and the project administrator. "Since they are primary contacts for many of those at risk of suicide, better training can have a great impact." The curriculum, thought to be the first of its kind, will be made available to colleges and universities nationwide.

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