BANGOR – Friends and family members of people who have died by suicide gathered Sunday at Hayford Park to honor their loved ones, support each other and raise public awareness of suicide.
According to literature from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a person in the United States dies by suicide every 16 minutes, on average, with suicide attempts taking place every 45 seconds. It is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and the second most common cause of death among college students.
In Maine, on average, one person takes his or her own life every two days, and there are two attempted suicides every day. Suicide is second only to car accidents as a leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year olds, responsible for approximately 25 to 30 deaths in young people in Maine each year.
Bill Bennett and his wife, Kathy, helped organize Sunday’s fundraiser, called “Out of the Darkness.” The Bennetts lost their son Daniel to suicide in 2003, when he was 24. Their older son had been killed in a car accident, and Daniel had taken it especially hard, his father said.
“We thought he was over it, but then he had some other things going on in his life,” Bill Bennett said. In June, the Bennetts participated in an Out of the Darkness overnight walk in New York City. Shorter walks like the one in Bangor have taken place all across the country this year, including in Portland and Houlton.
About 90 percent of those who complete suicide are suffering from depression or other mental disorders, Bennett said, but with professional treatment those conditions often can be cured or managed. He said people need to be educated about suicide so they know what to do if they see that a friend or family member is headed for trouble. Funds raised through local walks will be used for education and outreach, Bennett said.
Ginny Soucie of Brewer came to the Out of the Darkness event along with her two sons, Cory, 18, and Erik, 24. Soucie’s eldest son, Michael, took his own life in 2000, just a few days before his 20th birthday.
“He was very, very depressed,” Soucie said. “He was taking an anti-depressant, but I really think it made his depression worse.”
Soucie said the experience of losing her son to suicide was nearly unbearable. One of the hardest adjustments she has had to make is responding when well-meaning strangers ask her casually how many children she has.
“Now I just say, ‘I have three sons, but one died,'” she said. “This is so good,” she added, gesturing at the gathering, “to let people talk and not be ashamed.”
Soucie’s son Erik Poulin, who lives in Portland, said, “Depression is the worst disease in Maine,” but added that the experience of losing his brother has taught him to be more empathetic.
Rhonda Freeman of Portland lost her son Jamie to suicide seven years ago, when he was 24. Now she’s the regional director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Recently, she was treated for cancer with aggressive chemotherapy. Although she knew the experience would be grueling, she said, “I told the doctor, ‘Go ahead and hit me with anything you want; nothing can hurt me like losing my son.'”
Freeman said it’s essential to bring a frank discussion of suicide to students in high school and college. Some schools fear that talking about it will make students more likely to attempt suicide, but Freeman said that’s not a reason to avoid the discussion.
“It’s like believing that not talking to your kids about sex will keep them from having sex,” she said. “Guess what? They do it anyway.”
Julie Frost-Pettengill, a therapist who specializes in grief counseling, said people struggling to come to terms with a loved one’s suicide often benefit by meeting others who have been through the same experience.
“Of course, it doesn’t change the reality of the death, but it can help,” she said.
Frost-Pettengill facilitates a suicide survivors bereavement group that meets the first Wednesday of every month at the Brookings-Smith Funeral Home at 163 Center St. in Bangor. And on Saturday, Nov. 17, she’ll be co-hosting a half-day “Survivors of Suicide” conference in Bangor that will be electronically linked to similar gatherings at dozens of sites around the country. For more information on the bereavement group or the conference, call Frost-Pettengill at 735-4260.
For more information about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit www.afsp.org.