Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010
Posted: 4:34 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010
Suicides seldom make the news unless they're exceptional – high-rise jumps, bullying victims, murder-suicides.
But make no mistake; they are common.
Every week in Palm Beach County, medical examiner records show, among 1.2 million inhabitants, three to four people on average take their lives .
In a society where it seems everything is shared, analyzed and discussed, suicide remains in the shadows. It is forbidden by Jewish law, considered a grave sin by Christians and equated with murder by many other religions. Yet the pace is relentlessly consistent.
Between January and mid-October, 137 deaths were ruled suicide in Palm Beach County.
Last year there were 189 suicides. That's 15.75 suicides per 100,000 county residents. The year before, 188.
Their stories are seldom shared: The banker who left two young children, and a confused and hurt wife. The artist who attended but never graduated from a top college. The mother whose straight-A child died first, something that's never supposed to happen.
The failed real estate investor, overwhelmed with a shattered marriage. The widower with brain cancer. The addict, trapped in a miserable chase for his next high.
Their pain has become others'.
"For every suicide attempted there are, on average, six primary survivors," says Carol Fishbein, a Palm Beach Gardens psychologist who counsels suicide survivors.
Making sense of a loved one's suicide is a heavy, lifelong burden, one that many people keep hidden. But it can be made easier with support, she said.
That's what motivates sisters Michelle Turner and Christine Legris, and their mother, Kathleen Legris of Jupiter.
They are suicide survivors, and they believe there is healing to be found in sharing.
They are helping organize the Out of the Darkness Community Walk on Nov. 7. It's one of 200 community walks taking place nationwide to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which funds research on depression and suicide.
The walk will be held at John Prince Park near Lake Worth, with registration beginning at the Center Drive Pavilion at 9 a.m., and the walk beginning at 10 a.m. It ends with a butterfly release.
The Legris family has founded a Jupiter support group for suicide survivors. It has become a community of empathy and understanding. One of their new attendees is Deborah Barry, who as a 10-year-old child heard a gunshot in the house and ran to find her father gone forever.
"I was so little," says Barry, now 41. "I was a daddy's girl. I was a tomboy, the only girl on the baseball team, he gave me piggy-back rides and bought me my first skateboard."
Until the day she heard that sound.
"In an instant, all my dreams went away."
Kathleen Legris' handsome, troubled son, Paul Michael Legris, took his life in January 2004, at age 24. He had suffered with mental illness since his teens, she said. The help they tried to get him over and over ultimately failed.
"He'd cry himself to sleep from age 13, and I would lay down with him, and he'd tell me he wanted to die," she said.
Later, he was diagnosed with a mood disorder. For a time, he seemed to be coping.
"He was working in the family business as an electrician, and he was very, very good until his illness intensified," Kathleen Legris said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, based on 2007 data.
More than 34,000 people died by their own hands nationwide that year – the equivalent of 94 suicides per day; one suicide every 15 minutes or 11.26 suicides per 100,000 population.
Suicides in Palm Beach County, like those nationally, happen most often at the end of a gun. Hangings and overdoses are the next most frequent way of ending lives.
Cheryl Baldwin's little brother jumped in front of a train.
"He was a freshman at Wharton Business School, and when he came back home, he said, 'Something is wrong. I am depressed. I am frightened. I need help,' " said Baldwin, of Jupiter. He took medication, and he seemed to be better, but a couple of days after returning to school, David Gildenhorn was dead.
Baldwin, who also is helping organize the walk, said she'll participate in David's memory, and in the hopes of bringing the topic of suicide out into the light.
"I've read somewhere, being depressed doesn't mean you're weak, asking for help means you're strong, and it's true," she said.
It's not simple, preventing suicide. Recognizing the risk factors and signs is a first step. They include withdrawal, hopelessness, isolation, substance abuse, family history, recent loss, impulsiveness and others. But recognizing the signs is only half the equation.
What comes next? Effective mental health support is important.
Jupiter psychologist Russell Bourne Jr. says the goal of therapy with a suicidal person can come down to helping them realize that things will, inevitably, change.
"One of the things that is almost universally true about people who are either successful or have made a suicidal gesture is that they believe things will not change," Bourne said. "We know that is not the case."
It also involves helping them focus on a few things that really, truly matter to them.
"How do we enhance that and get them to feel a deeper connection?" he asked.
The suicidal person is often surrounded by love and yet cannot see it. Connections are important.
"When we let somebody love us then our life no longer belongs just to us, because what we do now affects this other person," said Bourne.
He's hopeful that better access to mental health care under health-care reform will lead to a lowering of the suicide rate.
After 2014, insurers won't be able to use mental illness as a pre-existing condition to deny coverage or raise premiums, and mental health benefits will be considered "essential benefits," which must be covered by policies sold on state insurance exchanges.
Finding the support group has been a great thing, Barry said.
"It was the first time in my experience that I knew I wasn't alone," she said. "I used to think that all my dreams were over, and they are not."
On her arm, she recently had beautiful dolphins tattooed, alongside these words: "Dream on."