May 25, 2013

Teen's suicide highlights issue's painful complexities

Communities talking about how to move on, learn from rise in suicide rate

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

SHAPLEIGH -- In the weeks since Haley Plaisted committed suicide, her family and friends have struggled to understand why the vibrant girl they knew wanted to end her life.

click image to enlarge

Family and friends of Haley Plaisted release balloons in Springvale following the teen's suicide in April.

Staff photo by Derek Davis

click image to enlarge

Shapleigh resident Rebecca Liberty discovered the body of her 16-year-old daughter Haley Plaisted after taking her own life in the garage.

Staff photo by John Patriquin

As they flip through photos of Plaisted with her arms around her sisters and riding on a dirt bike, they question if they could have done more to help her through the depression she rarely wanted to talk about. They wonder if bullying pushed her to the point she wanted to die, or if a break-up with her boyfriend was more than she could bear.

No easy explanations

They have found no simple answers, a common situation facing those dealing with the complexities of suicide.

"I don't know how she got to that point," Plaisted's mother, Rebecca Liberty, said as she sat in her kitchen looking at photos of her youngest daughter. "She wasn't in her right mind. That child did not want to die."

Plaisted took her own life on April 8, three days before her 17th birthday. It was a shock to her family -- they say she never said she was thinking about suicide -- but followed two years where Plaisted struggled with depression, bullying and a tumultuous relationship. She tried to kill herself for the first time in early 2012.

As emotional stories about teens who died by suicide grab headlines across the country, experts say people are starting to realize that communities need to have open conversations about suicide without fear it will prompt more people to take their own lives.

New school program

At least three teens have committed suicide in Maine this year, prompting both anti-suicide and anti-bullying vigils and educational sessions for students, teachers and administrators grappling with how to deal with the shock and grief that follow suicide deaths. Gov. Paul LePage recently signed a law that requires the Department of Education to adopt standards for suicide prevention and education training in schools.

But while it is important to talk about suicide causes and prevention, experts say much of the recent media coverage that blames suicide solely on bullying oversimplifies an issue that is far more complex.

"The bullying discussion has had an effect on bringing suicide out into a more open place where it can be talked about," said Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. However, she said, "I think much of the discussion has not been helpful because it has created a narrative in the public mind that youth suicide is a byproduct of bullying."

Maine has a higher rate of youth suicide than the national average and the highest rate in the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2005 to 2009, there were 901 suicides in Maine, of which 93 were committed by people younger than 24. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Mainers aged 15 to 34. On average, there is one suicide every two days in Maine.

Greg Marley, who oversees the Maine Suicide Prevention Program, said youth suicide rates peaked in the late 1990s, after a decades-long increase. After the peak, suicide rates remained relatively flat until around 2005, when rates in both Maine and across the country started to rise again.

Marley said it is hard to determine why there has been an increase across the country, but said rural states like Maine generally have higher suicide rates than urban areas. That is because people tend to be more isolated from social support and professional intervention, have easier access to guns and live in a culture where fewer people seek treatment for mental illness, he said.

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