Rising trends in suicide rates concern advocates

  • Donna Davis, of Wilder, right, joins Dani Sweet, of Strafford, left, on a walk around Lake Fairlee in Fairlee, Vt., to commemorate Sweet’s son, Jack, of Haverhill, who died by suicide shortly before his 23rd birthday in August, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. About 50 friends and relatives participated in the event. Between 2016-2018 New Hampshire showed a 110% increase in suicide deaths in the 10-24 age group over the period between 2007-2009 according to a National Vital Statistics System report. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Steve Boyd, of Vershire, holds a photo in Fairlee, Vt., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, of his grandson Jack Sweet, who died by suicide in August, with an Asian carp he caught while bow fishing in Lake Memphremagog last spring. Sweet was a captain of his Thetford Academy baseball team, became an avid snowmobile hill climb racer after high school, worked with his father as a carpenter. Boyd said his grandson loved to be in the woods hunting, and if he lost a hill climb, “it was usually only because something broke.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Steve Boyd, of Vershire, grandfather of Jack Sweet, who died by suicide in August, hugs Sam Rossier, of Danville, a close friend of Sweet, during a walk around Lake Fairlee in his memory in Fairlee, Vt., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. “We know a lot about suicide in this family,” said Boyd, who has also lost other family members. “It’s a mental illness and people have got to know,” he said. “Mental illness gets left in the dust.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2020 8:04:27 PM
Modified: 10/3/2020 8:04:25 PM

FAIRLEE — As the sun-splashed hillside glowed with the reds, oranges and yellows of the season last Saturday, about 50 friends and relatives of Jack Sweet took a walk around Lake Fairlee.

Snacks of apples, cookies and chips sat on one folding table at the walk’s starting spot, the home of some Sweet family friends. Nearby, another table held blue surgical masks and wallet-sized copies of the Lifesaver’s Guide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Walkers wore blue shirts in Sweet’s memory with words printed on the back that said “Don’t give up. You are important. You are beautiful. You are wanted. You are needed. You are loved.”

They did so in an effort to bring awareness to suicide and prevent other deaths like Sweet’s. Jack Sweet, a 2016 graduate of Thetford Academy, died by suicide on Aug. 30 less than two weeks before his 23rd birthday. 

“We couldn’t help Jack,” said Dani Sweet, Jack’s mother. “It makes us feel better to raise money and hope that we could help someone else.”

Dave Sweet, Jack’s father, said he hoped the event would “prod just one person to get the help” they need when in crisis.

The Sweets were among many working to bring attention to the issue in the Upper Valley and beyond during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September. 

Some of the factors that can increase suicide risk, such as isolation, substance use and financial stress, have increased during the past several months, but suicide rates in the Twin States were already above the national average before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in both states, while it is the 10th leading cause of death nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In New Hampshire, the rate of death by suicide was 19.4 per 100,000 people in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. In Vermont, the rate was 18.8 per 100,000.

Both states were well above the national average of 14.2 per 100,000. Even that national rate has climbed 35% since 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Suicide deaths by people between the ages of 10 and 44, and men who are 65 and over, have driven the increases in recent years, the NCHS report said. Rates of suicide death are higher among males than females and higher in rural areas than urban ones.

Nationally, the rate of suicide death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24 stayed steady from 2000 to 2007, but then it increased by nearly 60% from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018, according to a September report from the National Vital Statistics System. 

“There has been a dramatic increase in death by suicide by teenagers and young adults,” said Dr. Diane Roston, the medical director for Lebanon-based West Central Behavioral Health. “Even in our community, there have been a number of them just in the last several months.”

Jack Sweet, who was living in Haverhill at the time of his death, is one of at least four young men in the Upper Valley to have died by suicide this summer. Two White River Junction men also died by suicide: 25-year-old Micah Porter, a 2013 graduate of Thetford Academy who died on July 5, and 21-year-old Gavin Farnsworth, a 2017 graduate of Hartford High School and quarterback of the school’s 2016 state championship football team who died on Aug. 1. Roston, a psychiatrist, said she knew of a fourth young man who also died by suicide this summer in Lebanon.

Roston, who lost her husband David Plaut, a Richmond Middle School math teacher, to suicide in 2008, said she has no way of knowing about all deaths due to suicide. Still, she said, “in my own experience, I’ve not seen this many deaths by suicide in this short a period of time.”

Roston said she doesn’t think that the recent deaths in the Upper Valley were linked in any way other than time period. But, given the tight-knit nature of the region, she said the losses have likely “touched the lives of most of us.”

Combination of factors

It’s not possible to know why anyone dies by suicide because it is due to a combination of biological and environmental factors, Roston said. Research examining the factors driving the increase in youth suicide points to an association with substance use, as well as social media and bullying, she said. In addition, young people who have had relatives die by suicide may also be at an increased risk themselves. If they have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or another form of mental illness they also may be at a higher risk, she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated societal upheaval have caused increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression. While the “increase in suicide predated coronavirus, (it) certainly hasn’t helped,” Roston said. 

Jack Sweet, who was living with his girlfriend and working for his father as a carpenter, had long struggled with depression and anxiety, his mother said. Though he had been in treatment and receiving medication while he was in high school, he had more recently struggled to get the help he needed, and even tried to hide his illness from some of his friends.

“I think he was embarrassed,” Dani Sweet said. “He had that stigma around it.”

Both sides of Jack’s family have a history of depression and other types of mental illness, which Jack was aware of, and the family spoke about the risk factors they faced. Nevertheless, Dani Sweet said it was “still very difficult for him to manage it within himself.”

Jack, who grew up in Vershire and Strafford, played varsity baseball at Thetford Academy, eventually becoming team captain. He also enjoyed snowmobile racing, his mother said. But, she said, things changed after high school. He attended Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York for a time, but left after a semester.

“He wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself,” she said.

His condition worsened in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that he was out of work for several weeks this spring.

“I just feel worthless sitting here every day,” his mother recalled him telling her in March. Being out of work and stuck at home was “really adding to his … struggles with feeling adequate within himself. It made it much more difficult,” Dani Sweet said.

And the pandemic made it more difficult to arrange face-to-face counseling sessions that Sweet said she thinks could have benefited her son. She said he reached out to some mental health organizations and they sent him paperwork that Dani Sweet said he never completed. Still, Sweet said that she never expected Jack would take his own life.

“Jack didn’t really have a plan ever,” she said. He “never talked about that.”

Instead, she said his illness manifested as spontaneous, reactive and impulsive behaviors, she said.

“We didn’t know how bad the pain” was, she said.

Recognizing warning signs

As part of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, several Upper Valley organizations held online events to bring awareness to suicide, aiming to help people to identify warning signs and understand where they can go for help.

The White River Junction VA Medical Center held one such event on Sept. 22, given that veterans are at an increased risk of suicide. During the session, Suicide Prevention Coordinator Lisa Boedigheimer described the VA’s “SAVE” method for addressing suicide: signs of suicidal thinking; asking the most important question; validating the person’s experience; encouraging treatment.

Signs that someone may be contemplating suicide include expressing a sense of hopelessness, anxiety, sleeplessness, mood swings, anger, engaging in risky activities, increasing use of alcohol or drugs and withdrawing from family or friends, Boedigheimer said. 

But there is no way to know for certain what someone is thinking without asking them “are you thinking about suicide?” she said. From there, she said it’s important to give the person who may be struggling a chance to talk.

“They need to talk about it,” she said. “If we want to prevent it, we have to give them an avenue to do so.”

Lastly, she said it’s important to connect those who are struggling with help, either by calling 911, taking them to an emergency department or calling a crisis line.

“When you are talking to someone who is possibly suicidal, and thinking of hurting themselves, the first thing to do is remain calm,” Boedigheimer said. “Listen more than you speak. Keep good eye contact with them. Let them know that you are interested in what they are talking about. Be confident that you can help them. Don’t argue with them about their suicidal thoughts. Just listen.” 

It also is important to limit access to lethal means of suicide, such as firearms or medications, by someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, she said. The VA can provide gun locks and automated pill dispensers, which only dispense the correct amount of medication, she said.

“We already know that if we put a barrier between the initial impulse and the ability to act on it, (we’re) more likely to save that person's life,” she said.

Reinforcing protective factors

In addition to identifying risk factors, Emily Musty Zanleoni, the executive director of the Hartford Community Coalition, said it’s also important to reinforce factors that may help protect people from suicide. HCC was founded in 2013 in the wake of three suicide deaths by young people in Hartford, she said. In addition to focusing on suicide prevention, the group also works on issues such as substance use and food security. 

Protection factors include “creating a place where kids feel safe,” Zanleoni said. Until The Junction Youth Center closed last winter, Zanleoni said it helped fill that role for many young people in the community. A group calling itself the Hartford Youth Council has been hard at work trying to bring back a drop-in teen center to the town. She said the group hopes to become a nonprofit and open the center within the next two years.

“Those kids are doing a bang-up job,” she said.

Additionally, Zanleoni said mentoring programs help create relationships between children and adults that can help them navigate the many challenges of adolescence. All children can benefit, but Zanleoni said it’s especially important to connect those who may have experienced multiple traumas and help them build positive, supportive relationships with others.

“It’s those kids that we really want to find (and) encourage to not just go home after school, go find somewhere that makes you feel like you belong,” she said. “Hopefully that’s not the always welcoming drug users. … Misery loves company.”

Zanleoni said she’d be glad to help organize a conversation about how to better support those who may be struggling. She can be reached at info@hccvt.org. 

“Let’s have a conversation, even if it has to be virtual,” she said. “The more conversations we can have, the less we feel alone.”

Just as Jack Sweet’s family is trying to raise awareness about suicide following his death, following Micah Porter’s death, friends and members of the Thetford Academy class of 2013 created a fund in his name at the Randolph-based Clara Martin Center, the mental health agency serving Orange County and northern Windsor County.

“In high school, Micah had become a really great advocate for the underdog,” said his friend and fellow TA graduate Anna Magoon. He was a “great advocate for people who were part of that whole like loner club type thing.”

Porter, who struggled with depression, developed the Thetford Academy Youth Association and revitalized TA’s Gay-Straight Alliance. He eventually became a peer mentor at Clara Martin Center, helping to support its Youth in Transition program.

“Right after Micah passed away, I was very upset,” Magoon said. 

That feeling led her to reach out to her fellow classmates and create the fund. The goal is to support Clara Martin’s work to support teens and young adults from TA and anyone else in the community who’s “suffering; experiencing any suicidal ideation; any rough moment,” Magoon said.

She hopes the fund will help mental health providers come into the schools to talk with students and make sure they know: “Why it’s so good to live; why it’s so good to be on this earth. We all go through very, very tough moments. (We’re) all still working through something. You have a lot more support than you think.”

Resources also are available to survivors of suicide loss.

Losing a loved one to suicide creates “a more intense grief than losing someone another way,” said Diane Roston, West Central’s medical director. Having gone through such a loss herself helps her to appreciate the intensity of that grief, she said.

The Sweet family, which lives in Strafford, is in the midst of that grief. Dani, a pediatric nurse at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, has taken a leave of absence from her job and isn’t sure if or when she’ll be able to return given that the young people she works with are sometimes struggling with mental health issues that affected Jack.

Dave, who saw Jack at work everyday, also has found it difficult to get back to his work because it reminds him of Jack, Dani said. Jack’s 16-year-old brother Jesse took some time off early on, but he has returned to Thetford Academy and Riverbend Career & Technical Center in Bradford. Jack will be missing from the activities the family enjoyed doing together: hunting, fishing and snowmobiling, Dani said.

“It really affects the whole family,” Dani Sweet said. “It’s very traumatic.”

Friends and family have been very supportive in the wake of Jack’s death, Sweet said. In addition, she said she found a mental health provider, covered by her ins who specializes in losses like hers to help her through the grief. And, she’s had people who have experienced similar losses reach out to her.

“You do feel the most comfortable with those people,” Dani Sweet said. It’s “not a group you want to be a part of (but it’s) helpful to have those people who really understand.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.


The following resources are available for people at risk of suicide and their loved ones. 

■Dial 2-1-1

■Clara Martin Center, community mental health agency serving northern Windsor County and most of Orange County, 24-hour emergency services line: 800-639-6360

■West Central Behavioral Health, the community mental health center serving Sullivan County and most of Grafton County, 24-Hour Emergency Services: 800-564-2578

■Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont, community mental health agency serving Windsor and Windham counties, emergency services: 800-622-4235

■National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

■Veteran’s crisis line: 800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255

■Crisis text line: Text HELLO or VT to 741741

■Trans lifeline, a hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people: 1-877-565-8860

■The Trevor Project, a national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth: 1-866-488-7386

■Umatter U Can Get Help: www.UmatterUCanGetHelp.org

■Claremont-based grief group for survivors of suicide loss: Meets the third Wednesday of the month, 6:30-8 p.m. For more information about the group, which is currently meeting online, call Connie at 603-558-0961 or Randy at 802-376-6115. 

■NAMI New Hampshire, which provides information and referral services, (800) 242-6264 or (603) 225-5359.

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