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Preventing Suicide

Panel discussion examines a difficult topic with pleas of advocacy, statistics and hope.

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Kathy Harkey speaks about the suicide of her son.

Kathy Harkey knew that something was wrong with her teenage son, and she knew that she had to do something. Although he had once been a carefree boy who loved dirt bikes and football, Joshua was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication. But he refused to go back to the doctor to refill his prescription.

Over the course of a year, he had withdrawn from his friends, isolated himself in his room and became distant from his family. Harkey was desperate to do something — anything — to get help for her son. But she was up against the Virginia’s concept of "imminent danger" standard in which judges and magistrates cannot order people into a treatment facility unless they meet this standard.

So she did the only thing could do: She lied. Only after fabricating a story about how her son tried to hurt her was she able to get him admitted to a mental-health institution.

"They sent him home after three days because of a shortage of beds," Harkey explained as she recounted the events that led up to her son’s suicide earlier this year. "It doesn’t make any sense for a person to be at death’s door before they can be treated."

Harkey’s first-person account of the death of her son provided a dramatic beginning for "Too Young to Die: Teen Suicide in Our Community," which took place Monday evening at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center. Funded by a grant from the United States State Department, the event was co-sponsored by Alexandria City Public Schools, the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria and Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center. Harkey concluded her remarks by making an impassioned plea for legislative action to remove the "imminent danger" criteria, increase mental-health funding and increase the number of beds available.

"Virginia law must change immediately," she said toward the conclusion of her remarks. "Services must be accessible to decrease suicides."

IN THE WAKE of the publicity surrounding the Virginia Tech tragedy, in which a suicidal college student killed 32 people before shooting himself, the issue mental-health reform is likely to be a hot topic in Richmond during the upcoming session of the General Assembly. According to Michael Gilmore, executive director of the Alexandria Community Services Board, the strict nature of the "imminent danger" criteria was created in the 1960s as a reaction to the lack of safeguards that had existed before the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals. But the pendulum has swung too far, Gilmore said, and the story of how Virginia’s "imminent danger" criteria hamstrings the mental-health system is now at the heart of a reform effort.

"I think there’s going to be a convergence on both sides of the aisle to make a change, but changing the imminent danger criteria is not enough," said Gilmore. "Even now we face a funding crisis, and there are times when we have to send people all the way to Richmond to find an empty bed."

Monday’s panel discussion featured an array of speakers who addressed the issue of suicide-prevention from a number of angles — everything from recognizing the signs of a potentially suicidal person to the states of trauma and grief that survivors of those who have committed suicide leave behind. Duane Bowers, a licensed professional counselor, explained the complicated process by which survivors move through stages of trauma and grief before finding a sense of healing.

"They need someone to validate their feelings," said Bowers. "If you just say something like ‘You have nothing to feel guilty about,’ they’ll think you are blowing them off."

SUICIDE IS THE third leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24 in the United States; and although the city of Alexandria has only experienced seven reported youth suicides in the last 11 years, city officials have some reason for concern. A survey conduced by Alexandria City Public Schools last year showed that students in grades 6 to 12 indicated that self-reports of attempted suicide were twice the national average.

"This is pretty scary," said Nicole Rohrer of the Alexandria Community Services Board. "And the response to this question was higher in females than in males."

National statistics indicate that for every completed suicide by youth, 100 to 200 attempts are made. Every 16.6 minutes, a life is lost to suicide — approximately 30,000 each year. This rate is 50 percent more than the number of homicide victims, twice the number of AIDS deaths and higher than the rates for death related to Alzheimer’s, hypertension and arteriosclerosis.

But help is available. Mary Azoy, director of community education for a group known as CrisisLink, said that her organization takes requests from concerned individuals to make telephone calls to people who may be considering suicide.

"A lot of people hang up, of course," said Azoy. "But a surprising number of people will open up. And if we are a good listener, we’ll be able to open up a rapport."