Suicide prevention programs struggle for funding

Has lost two sons
Mary Thomas, shown with her daughter, Angel, has lost two sons to suicide.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

On average, nearly 500 Minnesotans commit suicide each year. That's the equivalent of Minnesota towns like Bethel, Amboy, Brownsville or Elko being wiped out.

"Never in a million years would I have imagined losing my son to suicide. Never in a billion years would I have imagined losing a second child to the same death," said Mary Thomas, who shared her story with about 400 others who attended a recent memorial day for Minnesotans who have lost someone to suicide.

Her first son, Blaine, died in 1994. She says the day it happened, she had chatted with him earlier on the phone. He was unusually happy.

"Blaine had died before I returned home from work," she said. "He had just turned 16 one month prior. How could I have not known that my son was filled with so much pain and sadness? How could I have not been there to protect him from taking his life?"

Dan Reidenberg
Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education -- SAVE.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Less than a year later, her youngest son, Aaron, also killed himself. He was 15.

The group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, has been holding this event each year for nearly two decades.

"Most of what we do is reactive," according to the group's executive director, Dan Reidenberg. "Most of the time, we respond when people call us after there's been a tragedy."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 34 year olds in the state. But middle-aged people and seniors also have high rates of suicide. State statistics indicate nearly all suicides are associated with chemical dependency and/or a mental illness. Therapy and medication combined are effective treatment 90 percent of the time.

Still, Reidenberg says, on average, somebody dies from suicide every 16 hours in Minnesota. Reidenberg says it just makes sense to prevent suicide.

"We spend about $50 million a year in Minnesota alone on suicide attempts, hospitalization from people who attempt to take their lives. That's about double even from a couple years ago," he said. This type of death is very different. It lingers in a different way. The grieving process doesn't end the same way as it does in a typical death."

Reidenberg says Minnesota was once a national model in suicide prevention and education. He says it was the first state in the country to allocate money for prevention. But it was also the first state to lose it.

In 1999, the state created a million-dollar-a- year suicide prevention plan. But in 2002, lawmakers cut the program by 13 percent. It lasted another couple of years, but was eliminated in 2005.

Despite work on a mental health bill this legislative session, efforts to revive the suicide prevention funding have faltered.

"Last year in Minnesota, we lost 530-some people to suicide," Reidenberg said. "We lost 120 people to the flu. And the gov's budget proposes $20 million for the flu preparations and zero for suicide." There are several lawmakers who agree with Reidenberg.

"We need the state to get involved. Suicide is on the rise. It's one of the leading causes of death, particularly for young men," according to Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. She authored the only bill this session to fund the prevention program. She says the realities of competing priorities mean she may not get the $600,000 she's looking for. But, she says, whatever she gets, it'll be money well spent.

"In prevention, there's so many things that we can save -- not only in this case, lives -- but certainly, the public's dollar, if we just prevent problems rather than wait until we have to go clean them up afterwards," Clark said.

Clark said whether or not her bill is fully funded, suicide prevention is such a high priority for her, she'll be back next year looking for more support.