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Suicide prevention efforts target teens

Eduardo A. de Oliveira

On a quiet Monday afternoon, Matt Huber, 17, was sitting in a Monument High School classroom in South Boston. He was being trained on how to look for subtle signs of suicidal students.

The tone of the weekly meeting was heavy, but everyone understood that the word “prevention” never had a stronger meaning.

Fast forward to Monday, Feb. 9, 2009.

“We’re here simply to say no one should have to worry alone,” said Huber during the 10th annual Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention (MCSP) award ceremony at the State House.

Huber was one of 28 students from South Boston’s Odyssey and Monument high schools, being honored for participating in Youth Centered Suicide Prevention, a program created by Children’s Hospital Boston.

“We saw early on that the prevention power would be much greater if the message came from kids than from adults, who kids think don’t know anything,” said Glenn Saxe, M.D., associate chief of psychiatry at Children’s and the program’s developer.

Suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States. In Massachusetts, suicide claims more lives than homicide and HIV/AIDS combined. In 2006, 437 Massachusetts residents died by suicide, compared with 183 homicides and 179 deaths from HIV/AIDS.

The method of suicide varies by gender. About 44 percent of males used suffocation or hanging, and 51 percent of females used poisoning.

Almost 7,000 people were treated for self-inflicted injuries in Massachusetts emergency rooms in 2006. The youth-focused program was created the same year, after a youth suicide epidemic rocked South Boston communities in the late 1990s. The first of its kind in the country, the program recruits students in ninth grade and older who have been referred by teachers to be volunteer peer leaders. Those who enter the program receive training from social workers.

Although the program has been successful, talking about suicide has never been easy.

“It’s hard to mobilize advocates for suicide prevention because people are embarrassed that [it] has happened to their families,” said Ellen Connorton, policy chair at MCSP. “… Not a lot of people are willing to talk to the legislators about suicide prevention.”

At the State House ceremony, 10 organizations and individuals were honored for their leadership in suicide prevention, including the Framingham Jail Diversion Program.

But suicide prevention programs have received funding cuts, which has hurt immigrants and families.

“A lot of immigrants and refugees, in particular, have left … traumatizing situations before coming to the U.S. We know post-traumatic syndrome disorder [PTSD] is a risk factor for suicide,” said Connorton of the MCSP.

Budget cuts already have affected institutions with large immigrant patient pools like Boston Medical Center and Cambridge Health Alliance, which were forced to downsize their mental health treatment capacities.

For the millions of family members affected by suicide, the budget cuts bring added stress on top of that related to the economic downturn.

“A neighbor of mine who bought a new condo and lost his job committed suicide three weeks ago. It was very sad,” said Huber. “Right now, it’s probably the best time for an individual with suicidal tendencies to talk to someone.”

According to the state Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, 2,180 individuals committed suicide in Massachusetts from 2002 to 2006. For every 100,000 American Indians, 10.8 ended their lives in that period. The prevalence of suicide decreased amongst other ethnic groups: 3.3 Hispanics per 100,000, 4 African Americans, 4.9 Asians and 7 whites.

Huber admits it’s hard to know many lives the Youth Centered program has saved so far. Although the number of suicides in the state decreased from 469 in 2005 to 437 in 2006, for him, it’s about more than the numbers.

“If we can reach out to one person, and this person sits down with the appropriate people, that’s a sign of success,” said Huber, who said his experience as a peer leader has prompted him to start thinking about running for public office one day.

The 8th annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference will take place May 19 and 20, 2009, at the Sturbridge Host Hotel in Sturbridge, Mass. For more information, contact Janice Ventre at