Balint: The walking wounded and the fight to end suicide

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I first met Cathy Lamberton when she came to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. She is the Executive Vice President of the Associated General Contractors of Vermont, and she lobbies on behalf of Vermont's construction industry. Lamberton clearly enjoys her work and is good at what she does; her testimony is relevant and well-prepared, and she is quick with a smile and a joke. I knew she'd previously been a state representative and had later worked in the Douglas administration. In short, I thought I had her figured out.

By necessity and because of human nature, we make quick assessments of individuals and create a narrative and short-hand about their lives and experiences. Not intended to demean or confine, our swift appraisals allow us to categorize and consolidate, systemizing and interpreting our experiences. But in the end, we are often entirely oblivious to another's great suffering.

Several weeks ago, I sat down to speak with Lamberton about the details of the industry she represents. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so I broke up our meeting by asking her about her life and family. She shared with me that her son, Logan, had taken his life when he was 19. Next month she will have to endure the agony of the 5th anniversary of her son's suicide. His heartrending death crushed her, but she emerged from the misery to become an outspoken advocate on behalf of the movement to end suicides in Vermont.

According to statistics compiled by the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, there are more suicide deaths each year in Vermont than there are homicides or motor vehicle fatalities. Vermont's suicide rate is significantly higher than the national average. Although the tragic suicide of popular Vermont Law School professor and legal commentator Cheryl Hanna made headlines across the country, male Vermonters are much more likely to commit suicide than females. In 2010, four times as many men and boys died from suicide in Vermont than women and girls; males are much more likely to use firearms to kill themselves. The 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey — conducted by the Vermont Department of Health in conjunction with the Agency of Education — also revealed some troubling trends among our kids. Twenty percent of all students surveyed said they'd contemplated suicide — an increase over previous years. Among middle school students, the statistics were equally disturbing: 17 percent said they'd contemplated suicide and 18 percent said they'd felt sad and hopeless for two weeks or more in a row — the definition of clinical depression.

Thirty years ago I was one of those distressed students. Student body president, president of my high school drama club, student athlete and honors student, I was the model of a successful, well-rounded pupil. I had been accepted to a top college and seemed headed for smooth sailing. But depression does not pick and choose its prey based on grades or success; we are all potential quarry. I struggled mightily my last trimester of high school and felt despondent for weeks on end. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to realize I needed help, and even more fortunately, there was a wonderful school counselor who helped me get the assistance I needed to navigate this especially painful time. She had received the critical training to accurately recognize and assess my needs.

The Vermont Suicide Prevention Center's federal grant expires this August, and — as we in the Legislature work to close a $100 million budget gap — it faces a steep uphill battle in securing more state funds for their important work. Although I will continue to advocate for state funds, please consider donating to this organization (www.vtspc.org).

There are many more of the walking wounded than you realize.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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