Nonprofit starts suicide prevention chapter

Published 8:47 am Friday, July 30, 2010

By Mike Rose, staff writer

The nation’s leading nonprofit in the fight to prevent suicide has launched a southeast Minnesota chapter.

With suicide identified as the second-leading cause of death in Minnesota for those 15 to 34, and the fourth-leading cause of death for ages 35 to 54, the new chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — chartered just a week ago — will look to combat this trend through research, education and outreach.

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Dr. Katie Schak, who works in the child psychiatry department at the Austin Medical Center, is part of a 10-member board that will direct the chapter. She said she hopes to bring an increased awareness of suicide to Austin, as well as to the rest of the region.

“Depression and suicide are major public health issues in every community throughout the world,” Schak said in an e-mail. “My goal for the chapter is to continue increasing awareness to the community that suicide directly impacts each and everyone of us during the course of our lives, whether directly or indirectly through family and friends.”

The chapter joins 45 other groups that have formed across the country. Robert Gebbia, AFSP’s executive director, said the organization has been working to increase its presence in all regions.

“Every community, and every area in our country, has experienced suicide,” Gebbia said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Gebbia said the public needs to be aware that mental disorders underline suicide. However, he said it’s important to note that the path to suicide can involve a number of different mental disorders, including depression and various addictions. That means there is no one-size-fits-all fix to suicide.

“There are lots of different pathways,” Gebbia said. “Once we understand that, we realize there is treatment and there is hope.”

To date, the executive director said he doesn’t think enough has been done across the country to address suicide, which he describes as a true “public health threat.” But he’s hoping the AFSP’s efforts can change that.

Primarily, the group works to get information out to the public, like by passing out materials in high school health classes. However, Gebbia said the AFSP also plays a key role by giving grieving family members people to turn to when a loved one has committed suicide.

Across the country, this happens about 30,000 times a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making suicide the 11th-leading cause of death in the U.S. And among young adults, there are another 100 to 200 attempted suicides for every completed suicide.

Gebbia wants to change this, but he knows it will take time. So far, he hasn’t noticed markedly different suicide rates in communities after AFSP chapters have formed. What is happening, however, is an increased awareness of the problem, Gebbia said.

And in a few years, he hopes to be able to say that suicide rates are in fact going down because of the AFSP.

“We know we’re at the beginning of this,” Gebbia said.