Community Group Works for Suicide Awareness in Deerfield Valley

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas has named September as Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. Teenagers are especially at risk for suicide. It’s also a leading cause of death for teens and for young adults aged 24 to 35. A group in southern Vermont is working on the issue. Members say Vermont needs a statewide suicide prevention and education plan.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Kris Berberian knows that a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about suicide, especially around teenagers.

(Berberian) “I had a school board member tell me that talking about suicide is like talking about sex. That you’re afraid that if you talk to them about it, they’ll do it.”

(Keese) Berberian is the town librarian in Whitingham and a co-founder of the Deerfield Valley’s Suicide Prevention Education Committee. She says that alarming numbers of kids are already thinking about suicide. She says it’s high time everyone started talking about it. She wants Vermonters in all walks of life to learn to recognize the signs that someone is at risk.

(Berberian) “If you don’t talk about it, no one is going to know what to do before it happens. And usually you get a sign, some kind of sign.”

(Keese) No one caught the signs in time to keep 32-year-old Taft Hamilton from taking his own life last March. Hamilton was a firefighter in Wilmington and a mentor to junior firefighters and EMTs. His suicide was one of several that shocked the valley last winter. The year before, a high school senior had committed suicide.

The Reverend Marcia Dorey was the young firefighter’s minister.

(Dorey) “This young person was so active in the community and so well-known and loved that it kind of woke us up.”

(Keese) Berberian and a neighbor decided that something had to be done. They organized a meeting that attracted teachers, guidance counselors, emergency response workers and a state health official.

It also attracted Berberian’s daughter Jan, a high school junior. It seemed to her that students were in a unique position to notice other teens at risk.

(Jan Berberian) “We’re more likely to show signs to each other than we are adults. We’re more likely to open up and talk to our friends about it.”

(Keese) So Jan Berberian started a suicide awareness group for students at her high school. The kids are working with the school on a plan to teach suicide prevention.

Bereberian says she’s learned some of the warning signs. They include a sudden lack of interest in old friends or hobbies, giving away possessions, and talking, or even joking about suicide.

(Berberian) “If your friend is showing signs and they open up and they tell you something, you can’t keep it a secret. If they say it’s nothing and they ask you to keep it a secret – it’s not nothing.”

(Keese) The Deerfield group’s efforts have attracted other interested people from around the state. They’re planning a statewide meeting on September 13 at the Veterans’ Hospital in White River Junction.

Although about 20 states have suicide prevention plans, Vermont is not one of them. The advocates are calling on the Douglas administration to create an effective suicide prevention program in Vermont. They hope that young people will be included.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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