Franklin James Cook

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Palo Alto Volunteers Act Boldly against Teen Suicides

In Intervention, Prevention on December 2, 2009 at 10:54 am

Caroline Kent, 18, places a flower on a fence near a train crossing where four teens have died of suicide. (Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Winston Churchill said, “It is better to do something than to do nothing while waiting to do everything”: With that in mind, I would like to salute a group of community members who are standing watch in Palo Alto, Calif.

Following the suicides of four students from a high school in Palo Alto in less than six months at the same train crossing, residents of the city have formed a volunteer group to patrol the crossing and prevent anyone form dying there.

There is no study showing that what they’re doing will prevent suicide (and I suspect there never will be such a study because this is an isolated incident and there are too many variables involved). For all we know, the added publicity they’re stirring up may be harmful in some way (but I doubt that could be substantiated by research, either).

And we certainly don’t know if they’re going to be successful at stopping this particular cluster of suicides that is tragically occurring at Henry Gunn High School.

Here is what we do know: Four children from the community these volunteers call home died by suicide one right after the other using the same means in the same place, and people said, “That’s not going to happen again here if there’s something I can do to stop it.” And then they did something to stop it.

According to a recent story on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “Twice each hour, the same routine takes place at a busy railroad crossing that runs through a residential Palo Alto neighborhood.”

First the warning bell sounds, as the crossing gates lower to block access to the tracks. Twenty feet away, parents huddled along a chain-link fence freeze, midsentence, and look down the tracks toward the approaching headlights. They watch as the massive silver commuter train bears down and then hurtles through the crossing. And then, just like that, the train is gone. The gates go up again, faces relax, and the adults resume their quiet conversations.

“We’re out here to show the community and the kids that we care about them and that we want the misuse of the tracks to stop,” said Caroline Camhy. The mother of two small children, Camhy started the Track Watch days after the last suicide occurred at this spot a month ago. As school and city officials agonized and conferred, she and other volunteers felt compelled to act.

“We want the deaths to stop, and we want people to know that if they just open their hearts and look around them, they’ll find people who care,” said Camhy. She added, “We’re not the only ones.”

A few weeks ago in my post about blue lights at train stations as a preventative measure against suicide, I was critical of officials doing “something (whether or not it might be effective) because they had to do something,” and that might seem to contradict what I’m applauding in the case of the Track Watchers. But here’s the difference: We know that removing access to lethal means is generally a very effective intervention to keep people safe who are having thoughts of suicide, but we really know nothing about the effect of blue lights on people who are at imminent risk of killing themselves.

Even so, I worry about how Track Watch might be dramatizing the rash of suicides, about whether the volunteers are properly trained and if they are able to take action that is safe and effective should they encounter a determined suicidal person. There is much more that needs to happen than a group of volunteers standing guard at a railroad crossing.

But for a community to commit itself to stop suicide — to literally put themselves between suicidal people and danger — that boldness and determination deserves praise and support. And it suggests that such a commitment is a good starting place for a community to decide “to do everything” it can do to stop suicide, not just students’ deaths at one train crossing but suicide by people of all ages throughout the community now and in the future.

[Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Times story linked to above describes another response to the Palo Alto deaths that bears mentioning, for it focuses on building resiliency by promoting a sense of hopefulness among students at the high school. For more information, please see the “Henry M. Gunn Gives Me Hope” blog.]

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Dylan Klebold’s Mom Is a Survivor of Suicide Loss

In Grief on November 29, 2009 at 5:52 pm

Dylan Klebold and his mother when he was five years old

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

The November issue of O, The Oprah Magazine features an essay by Susan Klebold about her journey of healing after her son’s involvement in the Columbine shootings, in which 13 people were murdered and which ended in her son, Dylan, and his partner, Eric Harris, killing themselves. Klebold’s essay is a study in understatement, which obscures the fact that the voice behind the writing is that of an extraordinarily courageous and insightful woman, and I fear that the most important things she writes about will be lost beneath the nightmarish reality of what happened at Columbine on April 20, 1999.

One of the contributions she makes in her essay — a contribution that I think merits careful attention — is highlighting a very common experience of survivors of suicide loss:

While I perceived myself to be a victim of the tragedy, I didn’t have the comfort of being perceived that way by most of the community. I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a “monster.”

That sentence, with a few changes in wording, could have been written by countless suicide survivors whose loved ones have been seen by others as weak or misfits or tainted or crazy or “monstrous” in some other way, survivors who themselves have been treated as complicit or blameworthy in their loved ones’ deaths.

This notion — that each of us who grieves over a death by suicide is “a victim of a tragedy” — is central to my own view* of one of the complications of suicide grief; and the value of Klebold’s observations about that phenomenon stems from the horrific nature of the shootings (there were 37 victims, 13 murder fatalities and 24 people wounded in the shootings), which accentuated her treatment as a “perpetrator.” If she has healed as a survivor of suicide in the face of the truly awful and starkly wrong-minded judgments leveled against her — in the most public of forums, the American mainstream media — then her healing journey likely holds lessons for the rest of us.

My interest in Klebold’s story is also based on the two times that I’ve met her.

The first was in April 2005, at the Healing After Suicide Conference of the American Association of Suicidology, which was held in a Denver suburb that year. She and I were among the 25 or so people in attendance at a conference session that closed with time for the audience to ask questions or make comments (I did not know she was in the audience, nor would I have known her if I saw her). In the middle of the Q-and-A, she stood and introduced herself, “My name is Susan Klebold …”

I cannot recount precisely what she said, but I remember a few things very clearly: She said that she had not viewed herself as a suicide survivor for a long time after her son died by suicide because of the circumstances surrounding his death, and she expressed gratitude over discovering that point of view because of how healing it had been for her. She spoke for no more than a moment, and I don’t recall her specifically mentioning Dylan or Columbine or murder, so, in fact, I was not certain who she was or what circumstances she was talking about, except that her name sounded very familiar to me. I was struck by how poignant what she said was, as is often the case when I hear a survivor of suicide loss first share publicly about his or her experience–and it seemed to me that this was the first time she had shared her story publicly as a survivor (although I didn’t know that for a fact).

As she finished speaking and the Q-and-A continued, I turned to a colleague next to me and said, “Susan Kelbold?” And my colleague replied simply, “Dylan Klebold’s mother,” and instantly I knew why the things she had said had struck me as being so powerful.

At the close of the session, a handful of people, myself included, went up and, one-by-one, introduced ourselves briefly. I simply welcomed her and thanked her for being there and for sharing what she had shared. I walked away thinking, “What a courageous woman.”

After that quite ephemeral encounter with Klebold, I had no contact with her until this February, when I had an extraordinary talk with her. I was planning to travel to Denver to deliver a suicide survivor support group facilitator training, and the colleague with whom I would be delivering the training called to ask if I would like to go to dinner with her and Susan Klebold, who had been in contact with the organization that sponsored the training. Because the conversation the three of us had that winter evening was private, I will not share the details of it, but I believe it is appropriate to share a few things in general about the context of the meeting:

  • The purpose of the meeting, from Klebold’s point of view, was to explore how she might be helpful to people who are at risk of suicide and people who have lost a loved one to suicide.
  • My colleague and I thought she might be tremendously helpful and were very encouraging and affirming about her possible role as an advocate for suicide prevention and suicide grief support.
  • None among the three of us had a specific idea about how it might be best to explore her being helpful to the field.

In addition, I will share some of the conclusions I made from the content of the meeting:

  • Susan Klebold’s personal journey after the most unimaginably hellish experience of suicide loss possible is one of the most extraordinary and inspiring stories of healing that I have ever heard.
  • She left me with a profound sense of her courage, her humility, her strength, her wisdom, and her sincere desire only to be helpful to others.
  • She has great insight into the nature of suicidal behavior and the role that mental illness plays in suicide.
  • She is a survivor of suicide loss like any other survivor of suicide loss.
  • She is also a survivor of a particular type of loss, murder-suicide, that deserves more — and more-compassionate — attention not only from society as a whole but also from the community of suicide survivors and suicide prevention workers and advocates.

One of the reasons for this post today is to state that, now, I do have a specific idea about how she might be most helpful to survivors, to which I’ve alluded, above: She could communicate the story of how she healed. What did she do to rise above the judgments of others? How did she first affirm herself as a victim of a tragedy and then move from there to being the survivor a tragedy? I want to know from her the same thing I cherish knowing from any survivor of suicide: Not just the story of her loss and of where she wound up after her long and painful journey, but also what happened along the path she has traveled between April 20, 1999, and today: What specifically helped her to survive?

*[Editor’s note: This recording, of a talk I gave in November 2008, has one statement in it that I would change — or at least that I would further explain — if I had been speaking from prepared remarks, which I wasn’t. I said that survivors should consider themselves not responsible, in an absolute sense, for their loved one’s suicide. I hope it’s not confusing to say that, on the one hand, no survivor should take it upon himself to consider that the death is his fault, yet on the other hand, every survivor must struggle in his own way with his own judgments about the role he played in the other’s life and death: That is a natural — and often very complicated and even tormenting — aspect of many survivors’ journeys. FJC]

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Beliefnet Blogger’s Mission Is Healing Depression

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on November 13, 2009 at 5:54 am

Borchard-BookTherese J. Borchard, founder of the blog “Beyond Blue” offers an explanation in Huffington Post for why she is on a personal mission to help people who have depression.

After trying 23 medication combinations, working with 7 psychiatrists, participating in two inpatient hospital psychiatric programs, and attempting every alternative therapy out there, I made a bargain with God.

“I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping people who suffer from mood disorders,” I promised, “if I ever wake up and want to be alive.”

Miraculously that day did come … the morning I woke up and thought about coffee.

So here I am. With my mission: to educate folks about mental illness and to offer support to those who, like myself, suffer from mood disorders.

Borchard is the survivor of her aunt’s suicide and a tireless crusader for better treatment and understanding for people with mood disorders and for the cause of suicide prevention. She has a book coming out in January, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, which she says was written

So that others might find a seed of hope in my story, and be able to hang on for one day longer. So that anyone who struggles with anxiety or depression–even in the slightest way–might find a companion in me, some consolation in the incredibly personal details of my story, and a bit of hope to lighten an often dark and lonely place.

It’s about my end of the bargain.

[Editor’s note: I can’t recommend the book without having read it, but over the past year I have read her blog and do recommend it, especially but not exclusively for people who are religious, which is the point of view from which she writes. FJC]

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Blue Lights: Suicide Prevention or Marketing Ploy?

In Research on November 11, 2009 at 9:42 am

Keihin Electric Express Railway trains arrive at Gumyoji Station in Yokohama, Japan. (Itsuo Inouye, The Associated Press)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

East Japan Railway has installed blue lights in all of its Tokyo central loop train stations because, according to a Nov. 4 Associated Press story “they hope [the lights] will have a soothing effect and reduce suicides.”

Here’s the interesting thing:

There’s no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides.

No scientific proof. Zero. None.

The rationale for installing blue lights, according to a spokesman from another train company that did so on a smaller scale several years ago, was “‘we thought we had to do something to save lives.'”

“We know there is no scientific proof that blue lights will help deter suicides. But if blue has a soothing effect on the mind, we want to try it to save lives,” [said Keihin Railway spokesman Osamu Okawa].

In other words, they did something (whether or not it might be effective) because they had to do something.

Here’s how it works:

The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train.

Using the same “logic,” wouldn’t we be “doing something about suicide” if we treated suicidal people by having them sit in a blue-lit room? Or how about if we start carrying anti-suicide flashlights that cast a strong beam of blue light with which we could “bathe” any suicidal person we encountered with the soothing effect caused in humans by their exposure to the color blue?

Not only is there no evidence now that the train station lights might work, but isn’t it true that there is no way to conduct a future study of their effectiveness in such a large-scale environment? I’m not a scientist, but eight million people use the railway system in question every day, and I don’t see a way to demonstrate — even if fatalities suddenly decreased by a dramatic number — that other factors other than the lights might be the cause of the reduction. (There were 68 fatalities in Tokyo stations operated by East Japan Railway in the most recent year reported.)

It makes me wonder if East Japan Railway spent $165,000, the cost of installing the blue lights in Tokyo, simply to demonstrate that the train company is “doing something” about suicide fatalities on its tracks (but without regard to the plan’s effectiveness).

Even more importantly, shouldn’t this make us all wonder about how many activities in the suicide prevention field overall are being done simply because we think “we have to do something to save lives.” How many programs and practices ostensibly designed to prevent suicide are in place now that lack scientific evidence about their effectiveness? How many are implemented that don’t include a reliable way to measure their effectiveness? The “blue light suicide prevention program” now in use in Tokyo certainly deserves scrutiny. Which suicide prevention programs elsewhere deserve the same scrutiny?

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[Editor’s note: A substantive comment (click on the red “Responses” link below) was posted on Nov. 23 by a psychologist working in Japan, which includes …

Useful telephone numbers and links for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal:
Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):
Japan: 0120-738-556
Tokyo: 3264 4343
Tokyo Counseling Services:

… and it should be noted that the “Need Help?” tab above gives English-speaking readers guidance on what to do if they or someone they know is having thoughts of suicide. FJC]

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In Wake of Fort Hood, Focus Is on Mental-Health Readiness

In Mental Illness, Prevention on November 8, 2009 at 10:12 am

In “At Walter Reed, a Palpable Strain on Mental-Health System,” Washington Post reporters Anne Hull and Dana Priest use the deadly shooting rampage last week by an army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, as a backdrop to starkly criticize what could be called the military’s lack of mental-health readiness.

More than two years after the nation’s political and military leaders pledged to improve mental-health care, their promises have fallen short at military hospitals around the country, according to mental-health professionals, Army officials, and wounded soldiers and their families … It isn’t only Walter Reed that is under fresh scrutiny [after the shootings]: Evidence of an undermanned, overworked health-care system stretches all the way to the Pentagon, where all of the top health-policy positions remain unfilled, leaving a void on an issue long fraught with inefficiencies and entrenched bureaucracies.

The report notes that the top civilian position in the Department of Defense focused on healthcare is vacant (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs), along with “three other top positions — the principal deputy, the deputy for clinical programs and policy, and the chief financial officer post.”

The vacancies occur as the Army in particular struggles with a soaring suicide rate. In 2009 so far, 117 active-duty Army soldiers were reported to have committed suicide, with 81 of those cases confirmed — up from 103 suicides a year earlier.

Quoted in the report is PFC Sophia Taylor, who is receiving treatment at Walter Reed while the Army prepares to give her a dishonorable discharge, which she plans to oppose.

“The amputees get the great treatment,” Taylor said. “Purple Hearts, money for losing their limbs. I have a lot of respect for them. But I lost my mind, and I couldn’t even get a simple ‘thank you for your service.'”

Related SPNAC post: “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides” at .

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Malpractice Advice Generates Suicide Intervention Checklist

In Intervention on November 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Dr. Phillip Resnick

An excellent suicide intervention framework is suggested by a recent article in Psychology Today titled “Strategies to Avoid a Malpractice Suit When a Patient Commits Suicide.”

The article, which covers psychiatrist Phillip Resnick’s presentation before the U.S. Psychiatric Congress earlier this week in Las Vegas, can be paraphrased to form a checklist, as follows:

  • In order to make it nearly impossible for someone to harm himself or herself, do not leave a high risk person alone or unmonitored.
  • Treat prior attempts and feelings of hopelessness as preeminent indicators of suicide risk.
  • In determining risk, do not rely only on the person’s denial of suicidal ideas: Take into account
    • the person’s actual behavior and
    • input from his or her family.
  • It is critical to assess protective factors, such as
    • “a sense of responsibility to family …
    • a positive support system,
    • a therapeutic relationship, and
    • good coping skills.”

It is interesting to note that the most common error in suicide risk assessment uncovered by litigation over suicide fatalities “is overreliance on a patient’s statements rather than on his observable behavior.”

A psychiatrist may assume a therapeutic alliance with a patient; however, about 25% of patients do not admit suicidal ideation to their health care provider. Once a patient makes up his mind to commit suicide, he may no longer view the doctor as an ally but as an adversary. Resnick said health care providers should not accept a disavowal of suicidal plans at face value — especially if the patient wants to leave the hospital.

Resnick also emphasizes the need for a suicidal person’s family to be involved in both determining and managing suicide risk.

“This is crucial,” he notes, “because a patient who is saying his final goodbye before killing himself has a 60% chance of saying goodbye to his spouse but only an 18% chance of notifying his therapist.” If a patient or a family member reports that the patient has a suicide plan, increased scrutiny is critical: 3 of 4 of these patients go on to attempt suicide.

Finally, the article states unequivocally that “no-suicide contracts may also create a false sense of security for the psychiatrist.”

“A no-suicide contract is alright as long as the psychiatrist doesn’t depend on it,” said Resnick. “I’ve seen nursing manuals that suggest that these no-suicide contracts can be used as a guide to determine whether the patient get privileges. I think that is just a mistake.”

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A Life Saved Connects the Dots on Data from Hotline Study

In Intervention, Research on November 3, 2009 at 10:00 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

In March 2005, at the inaugural meeting of the Consumer Survivor Subcommittee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a troupe of the finest researchers in the field unveiled the results of several key studies of the operations and effectiveness of suicide prevention hotlines, and I was fortunate to be among the newly recruited committee members in attendance.

Of all the things I learned during that meeting at the headquarters of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in Rockville, Md. — much of which has continued to guide the committee’s work and the overall development of the Lifeline network of crisis centers — one bit of data stands out to me with utmost clarity: In a relatively larger study, 11 percent of hotline callers said that “the call prevented them from killing or harming themselves.”

Eleven percent! More than one in every 10 people who reached out to a suicide hotline said the call prevented them from making a suicide attempt.

That bit data came to mind today when I read a story from WYFF Television in Greenville, S.C.

On Saturday in the little town of Travelers Rest, a police officer shot a gun right out of the hand of a suicidal man.

The police officers spoke with [Jeffrey] Simpson for more than an hour as Simpson held a gun to his head. The officers said Simpson repeatedly waved the gun around and pointed it directly at the officers, refusing repeated commands to put it down. The officers said as Simpson extended his arm and pointed the gun at an officer, another officer fired, hitting the pistol.

It seems to me as if a life was miraculously saved (especially when one considers how many times incidents such as this end with police killing the gun-wielding suicidal person).

And here’s what brought to mind for me the data about hotlines:

Police said the man … had called the national suicide hotline, who in turn contacted the sheriff’s office. The officers quickly requested assistance from the sheriff’s office SWAT team. The police chief and captain both responded from home to the scene.

Who knows what the long-term story will be in this case (or in any case involving a starkly suicidal person who is rescued), but this much is clear: The man was ambivalent about dying, and he called for help. The people he called sent someone to him who was able to help. And the man lived another day, with a brand-new chance to recover from whatever it is that is causing him pain.

See all five articles related to crisis hotlines from the June 2007 issue of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.

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Links to Suicide Grief Stories: November 3, 2009

In Grief, Grief Stories Series on November 3, 2009 at 8:53 am

[Editor’s note: “Links to Suicide Grief Stories …” is a SPNAC series featuring stories of survivors of suicide loss — about the effect their loved one’s suicide has had on them and how they are coping with their grief. FJC]

In “Lidia’s Story” on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s (800-273-TALK/8255) YouTube Channel, Lidia Bernik talks about losing her sister to suicide and how that has shaped her life and her work.

“I say that my family died with my sister because the way that my family was will never be again … Suddenly she was gone, and that is so painful.”

[Lidia is Director of Network Development for the Lifeline. Before that, she worked for the Suicide Prevention Action Network, the role she had just taken on when I first encountered her, at a meeting in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2004. SPAN was at a crossroads in leadership then, and she made a real difference by speaking passionately (in the way people do when they speak truth to power) about the common ground shared by all survivors of suicide loss. FJC]


Ben Verboom (Melissa Lampman/Kamloops This Week)

In an “Everyday Hero” segment broadcast on Global National, Ben Verboom tells how his father’s suicide led him to start the “Cycle to Help” campaign, a cross-Canadian trek he embarked upon last summer. In a newspaper article published part way through his journey, Ben explained the goals of the ride.

“My main focus is to start a dialogue about the issues — one that’s compassionate and comfortable,” he said. “Suicide is an issue we need to bring to the forefront.”

Although Ben is on a solo physical journey, his dad’s memory is close at hand: Ben is riding his dad’s bike.

“I’m fulfilling that dream, but I’m also coping with his death. It’s been a healing process and I’m feeling really good about it” (Kamloops This Week).


Jan Andersen

In “Mum Hopes Book Will Help To Ease Pain of Suicide,” Jan Andersen recounts how she came to write Chasing Death after her 20-year-old son’s suicide.

“In my frenetic search for understanding and support, I had difficulty finding any resources that truly connected with my raw grief. Most suicide books appear to be remote and academic and focus on suicide rather than relating to the shattered world of those left behind” (This Is Wiltshire).

In “Suicide: Coming into the Light,” reporter Faye Whitbeck of the Daily Journal (International Falls, Minn.) interviews three of Erik Rasmussen’s family members 18 years after he died by suicide. The article closes with a selection of poems by Erik’s brother Matt, who recently received a Bush Artist Fellowship. Here is one of them, titled “Outgoing”:

Our answering machine still played your message / and on the day you died Dad asked me to replace it. / I was chosen to save us the shame of dead you / answering calls. Hello, I have just shot myself. / To leave a message for me, call hell. The clear cassette / lay inside the white machine like a tiny patient / being monitored or a miniature glass briefcase / protecting the scroll of lost voices. Everything barely / mattered and then no longer did. I touched record /and laid my voice over yours, muting it forever / and even now. I’m sorry we are not here, I began.

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SPNAC’s 1st Anniversary Marked by Pause for Reflection

In SPNAC Stuff on October 31, 2009 at 11:05 am
Walkers View Quilt

Three walkers view the Black Hills Area Survivors of Suicide support group's Lifekeeper Quilt at the AFSP-Black Hills Out of the Darkness Walk at Fort Meade, S.D., on Oct. 17. (Jenny Sand Photography/Used with permission)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

There have been no fresh posts on SPNAC between mid-September and today, for which I apologize.

My workload has been too heavy for me to keep up with some of the volunteer and entrepreneurial activities that I love, so maintaining the SPNAC blog had to be set aside for a brief time. In addition, for the past few months, I’ve been engaged during my time away from work in personally reflecting upon the evolution of community suicide prevention and suicide grief support services in the United States during the decade I’ve been involved in the field, and wondering what the next decade might bring, both for me and for the suicide prevention movement.

The major tasks at hand for me recently have been (1) finishing up three years of work on the S.D. Suicide Awareness Partnership, a Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act-funded project (a few key elements of which I’ll still be working on through May 2010) and (2) serving as Walk Chairman for the AFSP-Black Hills Out of the Darkness Walk (itself a volunteer endeavor, but one to which I committed myself as if it were a part-time job).

The Suicide Awareness Partnership shifted from being a full-blown project to its current, transitional phase on Oct. 1, and the Black Hills Walk took place on Oct. 17, so I am hopeful that I now can return to composing regular posts for SPNAC, as well as periodically publishing the email newsletter.

The photo above is my favorite one from the Black Hills Walk (because it is a simple photograph that has many dimensions — the people pictured on the quilt, the walkers, the person pictured on their T-shirts, etc., and a personal dimension for me, in that my father’s quilt square is the one in the lower-left corner of the quilt). More pictures, which were taken by one of the walk sponsors, Jenny Sand Photography, can be seen here.

Another notable occurrence passed on Oct. 21, when SPNAC celebrated its one-year anniversary of publication. It was a quiet celebration, indeed, for even I hardly noticed it, but I thought it appropriate to mention it as a second year begins. To date, there have been 191 stories posted to the blog, which has had 29,000 page views. Here are the Top 10 most-visited SPNAC posts in its first year of publication:

  1. The Last Word on the Financial Crisis and Suicide Prevention at
  2. “Seven Pounds” Is Guilty of Irresponsibility with Suicide at
  3. About SPNAC at
  4. Edwin Shneidman’s Meditations on Death Are Full of Life at
  5. Youth Suicide among Native Americans Linked to Colonialism at
  6. Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides at
  7. “Good Grief” Worker Preparing for National Survivors Day at
  8. Links to Suicide Grief Stories: May 4, 2009 at
  9. Links to Suicide Grief Stories: June 3, 2009 at
  10. 2,000 Walkers Light the Way at Out of the Darkness Overnight at

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Study Gives 1st Picture of Suicide Attempts in U.S.

In Prevention, Research on September 17, 2009 at 6:49 am

A news release today from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “provides important insights into the nature and scope of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

Nearly 8.3 million adults (age 18 and older) in the U.S. (3.7 percent) had serious thoughts of committing suicide in the past year according to the first national scientific survey of its size on this public health problem. The study … shows that 2.3 million adult Americans made a suicide plan in the past year and that 1.1 million adults–0.5 percent of all adult Americans–had actually attempted suicide in the past year.

The study also uncovered a strong relationship between substance abuse disorders and having thoughts of suicide or making a suicide attempt.

People experiencing substance abuse disorders within the past year were more than three times as likely to have seriously considered committing suicide as those who had not experienced a substance abuse disorder (11.0 percent versus 3.0 percent). Those with past year substance abuse disorders were also 4 times more likely to have planned a suicide than those without substance abuse disorders (3.4 percent versus 0.8 percent), and nearly seven times more likely to have attempted suicide (2.0 percent versus 0.3 percent).

Dr. Eric Broderick, SAMHSA Acting Administrator, framed the study results as a call to action for establishing suicide prevention as a national priority:

“While there are places that people in crisis can turn to for help like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the magnitude of the public health crisis revealed by this study should motivate us as a nation to do everything possible to reach out and help the millions who are at risk–preferably well before they are in immediate danger.”

The study, titled “Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors among Adults,” uses data from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and the full report is available online from SAMHSA.

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Lifeline Offers Veterans Help through Online Chat

In Hotlines, Intervention on September 11, 2009 at 5:45 am

In “VA Suicide Assistance: From Hotline to Online,” Canandaigua Daily Messenger staff writer Julie Sherwood reports on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s new Veterans Chat service.

“This online feature is intended to reach out to all veterans who may or may not be enrolled in the VA health-care system and provide them with online access to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline,” stated Dr. Gerald Cross, VA’s Acting Under Secretary for Health,

If the person chatting is determined to be in crisis, the counselor can take immediate steps to transfer him or her the hotline, where the person can receive help in the form of further counseling, referral services and intervention.

Veterans retain anonymity by entering whatever names they choose once they enter the chat room. They are then joined by a counselor who is trained to provide information and respond to the caller’s requests and concerns.

    To access Veterans Chat:

  • Go to
  • Click on the “Veterans” tab in the left-hand menu.
  • Click on the “Chat Live” button on the right.
  • Read and check the box agreeing to the Terms of Service, which explain the confidential nature of the site and protocols of the Lifeline.

The veterans hotline can be accessed by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and pressing “1”.

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Prison Program Teaches Self-Care for Mental Health

In Mental Illness, Prevention on September 9, 2009 at 9:40 am

In “Inmates Learn How To Better Manage Their Mental Illness,” Gannett News reporter Cara Matthews covers the Wellness Self-Management program at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility.

“Traditionally mental-health treatment was … that I’m the doctor, you take this medication, you’ll get better,” said Howard Holanchock, assistant mental-health commissioner for the state Department of Correctional Services. “But Wellness Self-Management puts it on the patient, to help the patient develop their kind of individual, kind of personalized goals and relapse-prevention plans.”

The report states that “about 15 percent of the approximately 59,000 state prisoners, some 8,000 people, are being treated for mental illness.” One of those 8,000 is Scott Collins, who has been in the Wellness Self-Management program for five months.

“It’s helped me get out of my shell a lot. I usually isolate,” Collins said as he sat in a circle with seven other inmates and three staff members in a basement classroom at the medium-security prison. “Being here has helped me a lot.”

The program is small (it can serve up to 160 inmates), but it is being evaluated for how prisoners who complete it “fare in terms of disciplinary actions in prison and relapse, recidivism and hospitalization after they are released.”

[The abridged URL for this post is .]

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Ban of “60 Minutes” Stirs Debate on Media-Suicide Link

In Media, Prevention on August 16, 2009 at 9:28 am

LATEST UPDATE: In an Aug. 24 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Kellee Nolan reports that the Nine Network stopped pressing its objections to the ban of the “60 Minutes” segment.

The Supreme Court of Victoria … heard the Nine Network had agreed never to broadcast the segment, which was about four students from the same Geelong high school who committed suicide in a six-month period this year. The court heard Nine had agreed not to broadcast “on ’60 Minutes’ or any other program … the segment ‘Searching for Answers,’ or any part of it.”

Beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett, who had initiated the original injunction preventing the show from being broadcast, said

“We just don’t ever want to see programs that provide some solace, that may provide some acceptability to ending a life, particularly for those who at the time of receiving that information, may be at risk.”

Nine Network stood by its story, but issued a statement that said, “t was pretty clear there was not going to be a consensus relating to this story in the short term, so we felt it was best not to further contest the matter.”

Two articles from The Age update the story about a court injunction against the Australian broadcast by TV news magazine 60 Minutes, of a program about teen suicide at a high school in Geelong.

One article announces that “the broadcaster [Channel Nine] had reached agreement with the State Government not to air the program or any part of it until the matter returned to court on August 21.”

[Channel] Nine sought the adjournment so that the Government and anti-depression organisation beyondblue could consider the proposed segment.

In the other article, reporter Michael Bachelard explains that Beyond Blue chairman Jeff “Kennett began his crusade against the publication of stories about suicide long before he took 60 Minutes to the Supreme Court last week to prevent it from airing a report on a cluster of teen deaths at a Geelong high school.”

Kennett’s objection are grounded in the theory that there is a relationship between media coverage about suicide and suicide contagion.

When covering suicides, Australia’s media are governed by a voluntary code of practice, the first question of which is whether the story should run at all. The answer is most often “No.”

Mr Kennett’s action in the Geelong case was informed by clear advice from adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, and he was swiftly joined by the State Government in enforcing an injunction on Channel Nine.

The confrontation between the producers of the 60 Minutes segment, titled “Searching for Answers,” and the parties who have taken court action to halt its broadcast, both Beyond Blue and the Victorian Education Department has highlighted the debate over media coverage of suicide.

60 Minutes declined to comment for this article, citing the injunction. But in an earlier comment, a spokesman said that the program had the support of some of the families involved, and that it constituted “careful and appropriate treatment,” which “offers hope to young people in very difficult circumstances.”

Fairfax radio’s Derryn Hinch said this week that the program should have gone to air because, “talking about it, getting kids to watch and to listen, is much better than banning a TV show and making it all sound mysterious and illicit and maybe — to a gullible teenage mind — something rebellious and enticing.”

That approach finds some support in the British media code. Their guidelines, like Australia’s, encourage sensitivity and warn against sensational treatment, but they add that “censorship or misinformation about suicide is unhelpful,” and say that “media professionals should not seek to hide the facts.”

Kennett says his opposition to airing the program follows Carr-Gregg’s about suicide contagion and the media. Carr-Gregg had been interviewed previously in an article in The Sunday Age:

“I do not mind there being factual reporting of an incident. [But when] there are then programs … that increase the risk of there being repeat episodes, it is those programs that I call into question.”

A particular concern was that 60 Minutes was saying that a 17-year-old boy, “who obviously featured in the program,” would be available online to answer viewers’ questions. “That is not an expert … you just can’t do that. On a subject like that, it’s manifestly not something you can do,” Dr Carr-Gregg said.

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Teen Suicide Show Pulled over Contagion Fear, Injunction

In Media, Prevention on August 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

A blockbuster television news program, CBS’s 60 Minutes, has been compelled by an organization battling depressive illness, Beyond Blue, to pull a segment that was supposed to have aired Sunday night in Australia. The segment covered the suicide of four teens at the same high school in Geelong, Australia in the past six months, and the organization’s objection to it on concerns about the show contributing to suicide contagion.

According to a story in The Australian,

Beyond Blue chairman Jeff Kennett won an eleventh-hour injunction in the Victorian Supreme Court to block the current affairs program “60 Minutes” from airing a segment on teen suicide at a Geelong high school.

In his affidavit … Mr. Kennett said he was concerned the potential for another suicide at the Geelong high school — where four teenagers have taken their own lives in the past six months — was very high …

In a statement released by 60 Minutes this morning [Monday], the program’s executive producer Hamish Thomson said: “We are extremely disappointed that we were not able to broadcast the story, but we of course fully understand suicide is a deeply sensitive and difficult issue.”

Mr. Thomson said 60 Minutes continued to believe the story should be told.

“60 Minutes has the support of the families involved and has consulted with mental health experts in producing the story,” he said. “We believe our careful and appropriate treatment handles the issue of suicide sensitively, and offers hope to young people in very difficult circumstances.”

The matter is listed to be heard again on Wednesday morning when 60 Minutes will apply to have the injunction lifted.

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Related SPNAC post: “Ban of ’60 Minutes’ Stirs Debate on Media-Suicide Link” at

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Readers Respond to Story of National Guardsman’s Suicide

In Intervention, Prevention on August 9, 2009 at 11:34 am

(New York Times graphic)

The New York Times story that SPNAC summarizes in “Suicides in Guard Unit Emblematic of Army’s Dilemma” generated a number of letters to the editor that the Times published today.

In one letter, Kenneth Bacon, who was chief spokesman for the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton, writes that the solution to military suicide doesn’t require “new scientific discoveries.”

We’re talking about combining proven responses to alcoholism, depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome with the need for individual and family therapy. Failure to address these issues today is nothing short of criminal.

In another letter, a Houston man who served as a chaplain in Vietnam writes

It causes the deepest trauma to see comrades torn to pieces and to hear the screams of the dying — screams that I have heard in my dreams for these past 40 years. Sometimes the screams were so loud that I woke up in sweat and in tears.

Suicide sometimes seems like the only relief — a thought I have had a thousand times. Even today I often cry myself to sleep. And I was a Catholic priest!

Douglas Jacobs, president and chief executive of Screening for Mental Health/Military Pathways, writes

“One of the greatest challenges in addressing the problem of suicide in the military is stigma. Service members are trained to be physically and mentally tough, and as a result seeking help is often seen as a sign of weakness. But it takes courage to ask for help.”

And John Draper, Director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, tells readers that the federally funded crisis line for veterans is being used by 10,000 callers per month.

Veterans, family members and concerned friends should know that help is only a toll-free phone call away … It is free, confidential and available 24/7. Our veterans deserve our care. This hot line is one important service that helps to support them through readjustment challenges after service to our country.

Veterans can call the Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), and press “1” to be routed to the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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Related SPNAC post: “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides” at

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Links to Suicide Grief Stories: August 7, 2009

In Grief, Grief Stories Series on August 7, 2009 at 3:14 pm

[Editor’s note:Links to Suicide Grief Stories …” is a SPNAC series featuring stories of survivors of suicide loss — about the effect their loved one’s suicide has had on them and how they are coping with their grief. FJC]


Jack Clarke, Peter Johnston and Matt Gardner, 22, began their walk from Sydney to Brisbane on July 4.

In “Trio Walk from Sydney to Brisbane To Tackle Depression,” reporter Daniel Hurst bids farewell to Peter Johnston and two of his friends as they embark on a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) journey.

The 22-year-old video producer, whose mother killed herself after a 10-year battle with depression, joined his friends Matt Gardner and Jack Clarke at the Sydney Opera House early this morning [July 4] to set off on the 23-day trek.

Mr. Johnston grew up with his mum after his parents separated, but she felt isolated as a deaf woman and had attempted suicide several times … [He] said the group started planning the “Steps 4 Survival” walk three months ago as a way to tackle depression among young people.

“I had a few breakdowns this year, and to make myself feel better I decided I had to do something for myself and to help others,” he said. “I’m looking for healing and this is definitely going to do that” (Brisbane Times).

SPNAC readers may visit the three young men’s Facebook page. [I couldn’t find news about the completion of the walk, so hopefully someone will comment with an update. FJC]


Cheryl Softich views a photo of her son, Noah Pierce, during the “Always Lost: A Meditation on War” exhibit. (Cathleen Allison, Nevada Appeal)

In “A Personal War: Mother Hopes Soldier Son’s Poetry Keeps Others from Suicide,” reporter Teri Vance goes with the mother of an Iraq war veteran who died by suicide to a multimedia exhibit that features the young man’s poetry.

On Thursday, Softich wept as she read the poems hanging in the hallway of the Bristlecone Building. She kissed her fingertips and touched them to the glass of her son’s portrait.

“I promised Noah when he was alive that I would get his work published and out there,” she said. “In death, his words are reaching out and trying to help others not to do what he did” (Carson City Nevada Appeal).


At Camp Stepping Stones, a large heart-shaped puzzle is among the activities that await children.

In “Stepping Stones Brings Grieving Families Together,” reporter Max Bowen interviews Melanie Lausier, a survivor of her husband’s suicide, about grief services that have been helpful to her children, Kami, 8, and Darren, 10.

The family has been to different counselors and bereavement services and found that with Camp Stepping Stones … the loss has become easier to talk about.

“You don’t have to hide anything from anybody,” Melanie said. “It doesn’t make anybody feel uncomfortable, because you’re all in the same boat.”

[The] … summer program has helped families form relationships with others who can relate to what they have experienced, said Pediatric Palliative Care Coordinator Maureen Forbes. The process is especially helpful for the children, who can find it difficult to talk about such losses with their friends.

“Some of these feelings they have never experienced before,” said Forbes. “We try and make it a safe and comfortable place where they feel secure enough” (Billerica Minuteman).

SPNAC readers may view a photo gallery from the 2008 Camp Stepping Stones program.


Kim and Robert Cutts

In “The Trauma of Husband’s Suicide Lingers,” columnist Kristi O’Harran covers one woman’s acount of the aftermath of her husband’s suicide, particularly problems with how she was treated by the medical examiner’s office.

Her husband … left a lengthy suicide letter saying he loved his wife very much, had lost his faith in God and felt the “weight of the world” on his shoulders. Life doesn’t get any worse than that, but for Kim Cutts, it was not the bottom of the pit. She said she was treated callously by workers at the office of the county medical examiner and at the evidence room. Routine procedures were devastating, she said.

Cutts said she was given back a bloody gun, provided explicit paperwork she didn’t want to read and shown little courtesy when she retrieved her husband’s personal effects.

“I was widowed by my husband,” Cutts said, “And lost by the system.”

O’Harran interviewed a Snohomish County official, who said that employees “prepare the family for what they might see, which was done in this case” (Everett Daily Herald).


Within hours after her death in a murder-suicide, a candlelight vigil brought friends of 18-year-old Ashley DeWitte together near her home in Mesa, Ariz. (Ralph Freso, East Valley Tribune)

In “Friends Remember Victim in Murder-Suicide,” reporter Mike Sakal captures the scene at a candlelight vigil for “an 18-year-old Mesa[, Ariz.,] woman [who] was shot and killed in her front yard by an ex-boyfriend who then turned the gun on himself.”

Many of Ashley DeWitte’s friends shared memories near her home … late Wednesday [June 24]. The friends, led by DeWitte’s close friend Heather Harris, told stories about DeWitte, whom they described as “the girl with the bleached blond hair who could say something positive after everything.”

“Ashley was an awesome person,” Harris said. “Even knowing this girl the slightest bit lightened your world. I’ve got many memories of Ashley, and I’ll always carry them in my heart” (East Valley Tribune).

[“Links to Suicide Grief Stories …” includes articles about all “kinds” of survivors who are affected by suicide — including those left behind in a murder-suicide, both the survivors of the person who died by murder and the survivors of the person who died by suicide — because we share a common bond in our grief. FJC]

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Feds Give Funds to Hotlines to Help with Economy Calls

In Intervention, Prevention on August 6, 2009 at 9:38 am

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Adminstration (SAMHSA) has announced that it will provide more than $1 million to help crisis centers in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL, 800-273-TALK) network deal with what SAMSHA Acting Administrator Eric Broderick calls “a critical situation.”

“Calls into suicide crisis centers have substantially increased during the past year — 54,054 calls in the last recorded month alone — with between 20 to 30 percent of calls being specifically linked to economic distress,” said … Broderick. “These funds will help provide desperately needed assistance to those on the front lines, responding to this urgent public health need.”

A press release from SAMHSA notes, in addition:

Many of these [crisis] centers must cope with a sharp rise in the number of callers in crisis (often because of financial problems). At the same time these centers are threatened with significant cutbacks in funding from state and local governments and other sources of support.

According to the Lifeline website,

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. By dialing 1-800-273-TALK, the call is routed to the nearest crisis center in our national network of [140] crisis centers. The Lifeline’s national network of local crisis centers, provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals day and night.

  • Call for yourself or someone you care about
  • Free and confidential
  • Available 24/7

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Related SPNAC post: “The Last Word on the Financial Crisis and Suicide Prevention” at

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Iraq Vet and Teen Say “Thank You” to Lifeline via Avatars

In Hotlines, Intervention, Prevention on August 4, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Since last December, when I invited SPNAC readers to share their stories through the avatar-based interface on the Lifeline Gallery, there have been at least two noteworthy developments that I haven’t yet reported.

One was shared just last month by Amanda Lehner of Lifeline in a post on the network’s Crisis Centers blog:

Two recent avatars stories (from an Iraq combat vet and a 13 year-old girl) on specifically thank Lifeline for helping to save their lives.

The other development appeared several months ago when Dr. Phil shared a suicide prevention message through his avatar on the Gallery.


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Anti-Depressant Use Doubles; Joint Psychotherapy Decreases

In Mental Illness, Research on August 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm

According to an article in USA Today by reporter Liz Szabo, “the number of Americans using antidepressants doubled in only a decade, while the number seeing psychiatrists continued to fall.” The article is based on a “study of nearly 50,000 children and adults,” which appears in the current issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

According to the USA Today report,

About 10% of Americans — or 27 million people — were taking antidepressants in 2005, the last year for which data were available at the time the study was written. That’s about twice the number in 1996 … Yet the majority weren’t being treated for depression. Half of those taking antidepressants used them for back pain, nerve pain, fatigue, sleep difficulties, or other problems, the study says.

Among users of antidepressants, the percentage receiving psychotherapy fell from 31.5% to less than 20%, the study says. About 80% of patients were treated by doctors other than psychiatrists …

Olfson says his study shows that doctors need more training in mental health. And he says he’s concerned about the decline in patients receiving psychotherapy. Patients who receive only medication may not get the help they need, he says.

[The abridged URL for this post is .]

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Suicides in Guard Unit Emblematic of Army’s Dilemma

In Prevention on August 1, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Sgt. Jacob Blaylock was praised as a good soldier during his tour in Iraq.

Reporter Erica Goode, writing for the New York Times, tells in intimate detail the story of a National Guard unit, the 1451st Transportation Company, in which four soldiers killed themselves after returning from Iraq — all within less than a year.

The four suicides, in a unit of roughly 175 soldiers, make the company an extreme example of what experts see as an alarming trend in the years since the invasion of Iraq.

At the heart of the story is the suicide of Sgt. Jacob Blaylock.

Blaylock’s family and fellow soldiers, as well as records of his military service and treatment in the veterans health system, show that his tendencies toward depression and self-destructive behavior were longstanding and clear. But while friends and others who cared about him tried to help, his vulnerability was missed, or minimized, by many of the people whose job it was to intervene.

Sergeant Blaylock’s case particularly raises questions about the way the military screens those it sends to war. Discharged several years earlier for mental health problems, he was called back up in late 2005, when the Army was desperate for troops to combat rising violence in Iraq. And he was deployed even though at least three other soldiers had warned mental health screeners about his instability.

But as the story notes,

“Suicide is a complex act, a convergence of troubled strands. Researchers who have examined military suicides find not a single precipitating event but many: multiple deployments, relationship problems, financial pressures, drug or alcohol abuse.”

And “three of the four men who would later commit suicide had a direct connection to” the combat deaths of two of their fellow soldiers in Iraq, less than two weeks before the 1451st’s deployment was to end.

Guilt is a common theme in the narratives of soldiers haunted by war. The bonds of loyalty and shared obligation the military instills to forge an effective fighting force can, in the aftermath of battle, curdle into obsession with failures, real or imagined. The bomb that killed Sergeants [Brandon] Wallace and [Joshua] Schmit — planted by an unseen enemy on a dark road — left Sergeant Blaylock and many others in the 1451st feeling that the deaths were, in some way, their fault.

Sgt. Blaylock died by suicide on Dec. 9, 2007 at the age of 26.

On Dec. 16 … Sergeant [Jeffrey] Wilson, 31 … died after taking an overdose of antidepressants.

Sergeant [Roger] Parker went to Sergeant Wilson’s wake in December … Seven months later, on July 19, 2008, Sergeant Parker, 41, hanged himself at his home in Saluda, N.C.

On Sept. 19, Specialist [Skip] Brinkley, 32, shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy who responded to a 911 call from his home in rural Caldwell County, N.C. After a five-day manhunt, he was found in a remote area of his property, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Goode’s story chronicles Blaylock’s (and some of the other suicide fatalities’) visits to VA health care after his return from Iraq as well as some of the difficulties he experienced in his personal life, both before and after he saw combat duty. But whatever one can say about his mental health or his problems in living,

Sergeant Blaylock was a good soldier, promoted three times in 15 months. His M-16 was immaculate. He was brave on the road, serving for months as the gunner in the scout truck of the third platoon’s third squad, surviving three attacks with homemade bombs.

The story leaves one with only unanswered questions: Should people with Blaylock’s history be sent to war? Is the Army’s screening for mental health problems adequate? Is the VA’s care for soldiers after combat dealing effectively with the trauma they’ve experienced. Is suicide nothing more than another of the many tragic but unavoidable costs of war? And it leaves one with the feeling that there are many more unanswered questions — all of them difficult and none of them having simple or straightforward answers.

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Related SPNAC post: “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides” at

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