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Features

Can the state stop a suicide?

Legislators are considering whether to wade into a very personal struggle.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published April 14, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE

When it happens, it stuns.

The last call. The last note. What was he thinking when he pulled that trigger, when she let the car run inside the garage?

Florida has the 15th highest suicide rate in the country. And though suicides rarely make the news, their prevalence has led state lawmakers to push the creation of an Office of Suicide Prevention.

But what can a state do to stop someone like John Winter, 39, the popular WFLA-Ch. 8 meteorologist, from taking his own life, as he did a week ago? Can a state truly help a person in his most desperate moment?

Gov. Jeb Bush thought so, first demanding a state strategy in 2000. And with HB139 and SB224 moving through the Legislature, lawmakers seem to be signaling that they do too.

"It's time," said Rep. Aaron Bean, chairman of the House Healthcare Council. "I think it's going to bring a focus to the problem we've sometimes ignored."

The bill, which passed the House and must clear one more Senate committee before a full vote, would authorize spending $150,000 to hire two people to help carry out the directives of a 28-member board.

The board would develop a long-term strategy to reduce suicide, including educating the public on ways to prevent it and joining forces with community agencies.

Though Gov. Charlie Crist eliminated funding for the office in his proposed budget, he has since said he supports the initiative and called his earlier decision a "mistake."

In one analysis of the proposed law, a legislative staffer explained the state's interest in dry bureaucrat-speak: "Estimates of the economic costs of suicide vary, but a reduction in the number of suicide attempts and completed suicides would likely result in a reduction in costs related to medical treatment and hospitalizations, costs related to disability, and lost earnings."

Not exactly the voice of comfort that might be extended to the family of a suicide victim.

Susanne Homant, executive director of the Florida chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is more succinct.

Leaving such matters to private advocacy groups, she said, results in sometimes short-term, inconsistent efforts. State leadership provides direction and consistency.

"And reducing the number of suicides and attempted suicides," Homant said, "is a good thing."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at 813 610-6372 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

*   *   *

Suicide in Florida

- 15th highest suicide rate in the United States

-Third leading cause of death for Floridians ages 15 to 24

- Second leading cause for ages 25 to 34

- Fifth leading cause for ages 35 to 44

Source: Florida Department of Health

[Last modified April 13, 2007, 12:25:41]


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