Mayfield High School algebra teacher Becky Woodruff remembers the days after her oldest brother Bobby Ambrosino’s suicide in 2003 and the lessons it taught her.
“It’s true that everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about. When I went back to school, I headed straight for the classroom and I was doing everything I was supposed to, but meanwhile I was barely functioning outside of my job. Everybody puts on the brave face and the strong persona when they leave you,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot more compassion with myself and with others.”
Tuesday was Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day, National Suicide Prevention Week runs from Sept. 8 to 14, and September is National Suicide Prevention Month.
Although the most recent U.S. Center for Disease Control statistics rank New York as having the lowest rate of suicide of any state as of 2017, 8.11 per 100,000 residents, the low ranking belies the high number of deaths. The total number of suicides in New York state for 2017 was 1,696, far greater than the state with the highest suicide rate, Montana, which had 311 suicides, a rate of 28.89 per 100,000.
The states with the highest number of suicides for 2017 were California, 4,312, a rate of 10.5, and Texas, 3,778, a rate of 13.4. The states with the fewest suicides were Vermont (18.3 rate) and Delaware (11.6 rate), both with 112 recorded suicides.
The latest numbers available from the CDC come from 2017 because suicide statistics depend upon the processing of death certificates and tend to lag by about two years.
Nationally there were 47,173 suicides in 2017, a rate of 14 per 100,000 people. There were also 1.4 million suicide attempts.
Suicides are on the rise both nationally and in all 50 states. The national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent since 1999 and New York state’s rate is up 28.8 percent.
In New York, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34, the fourth highest cause of death for people aged 35 to 54, and the ninth leading cause of death for people aged 55 to 64.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention AFSP estimates that all of the economic loss from suicides in New York state in 2010 cost the state $1.8 billion.
Woodruff said she struggled with her brother’s suicide for several years until a friend whose brother also had committed suicide suggested she participate in an AFSP suicide awareness walk. She found the experience helpful and decided to join the Fulton Montgomery Suicide Prevention Task Force.
“It’s a different kind of loss, so it is comforting to be around people who intrinsically know what you’re feeling,” she said.
Montgomery County Public and Mental Health Director Sara Boerenko said the Fulton Montgomery Suicide Prevention Task Force is one of several available resources to help prevent suicide. Others include Facebook page groups such as the Project Semicolon, a local 24/7 crisis hotline at 518-842-9111 and the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Boerenko said she is offering a free youth mental health training seminar Sept. 25, and she encourages people to call 518-853-3531 for more information.
According to the state Department of Health, The counties of the greater Capital Region recorded the following suicide tallies in 2017: Albany, 32; Saratoga, 24; Rensselaer, 16; Schenectady, 14, Greene, 12; Columbia, 9; Warren, 8; Fulton, 7; Montgomery, 6; and Schoharie, 3.
The county with the highest number of suicides outside of New York City, which had 541, was Suffolk with 126. Hamilton County had zero reported suicides.
Boerenko said three of the suicides in Montgomery County for 2017 were veterans. She said the number of suicides in her county for 2018 has not yet been finalized, but for 2019 so far she has two recorded. She outlined some of the challenges facing rural counties as they grapple with suicide deaths.
“One of the issues facing Montgomery County is the need for professionals to work in mental health programs. Nationally, we are facing a shortage of psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, mental health counselors and care managers. These shortages trickle down to the county levels. However, as a parent, teacher, friend, clergy, neighbor, there are ways to assist a person in need,” she said.
“Providers in Montgomery County have taken action to promote and enhance crisis services. The development of a children’s mobile crisis team, a law enforcement crisis intervention team and promotion of the crisis call hotline are three areas in which we have been actively working to reduce the numbers of suicides and suicide attempts.”
Woodruff said the Fulton Montgomery Suicide Prevention Task Force has not been as active in recent years as it was when she was first involved with it. She said the task force currently doesn’t have a chairperson and needs someone to volunteer for that role. She said she helped to create the “Hope and Wellness Club” group at Mayfield High School as a way of providing suicide awareness and prevention information.
Woodruff said she believes suicide is on the rise among young people, with some children as young eight to 12 expressing suicidal thoughts. She attributes some of the increase to the high stakes nature of social media, which provides unrealistic depictions of happiness and perfection among teens, while providing a platform for often devastating public bullying.
Woodruff said she has provided a “safe room” in her classroom where students can come and discuss their feelings without fear of judgment.
Woodruff said she’s organized a program to be held Friday in honor of suicide prevention, based on an idea she got from another suicide prevention group called “To Write Love on Her Arms.”
“We will have the kids write something about ‘what tomorrow needs them for,’ because a big cause of suicide is losing hope, you can’t envision things getting better, you can’t go on to tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t get any more tomorrows with my brother. He’s not here for anything that’s going to happen in the future, so I say to the kids, schools sometimes sucks, but it’s going to get better, but you have to be here for it though.”
Woodruff said she encourages people who want to help with suicide awareness and prevention to attend “The Schenectady Out of the Darkness Community Walk” organized by the Capital Region AFSP on Sept. 28, with registration at noon in Central Park. She said participants can get people to pledge donations for them, but don’t have to.
“We appreciate fundraising, however it’s not necessary, it’s really just a day to support each other, of hope and healing,” she said.