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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Guest Commentary

Past the breaking point


UH history professor Robert Buzzanco, left, next to his late son Kelsey Buzzanco. Kelsey’s suicide is one in a growing number of suicides among young adults. | Photo courtesy of Robert Buzzanco

UH history professor Robert Buzzanco, left, next to his late son Kelsey Buzzanco. Kelsey’s suicide is one in a growing number of suicides among young adults. | Photo courtesy of Robert Buzzanco

Next week, I will commemorate the third anniversary of the worst day of my life — the date on which my son Kelsey Buzzanco, a UH student, died by suicide.

It was March 11, 2010 when Kelsey took his life with a handgun. Since that time, I’ve thought of him every day, and anyone who has lost someone close to suicide will tell you that the pain does not go away. Still, there are ways to try to make something positive out of such a loss through helping others understand, get educated about and prevent the growing crisis of suicide in our society.

According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, there were more than 38,000 suicides in America, or 12.4 percent for every 100,000 people, which is up from 10.7 percent in 2000. College-aged persons accounted for 4,600 suicides, or 21.1 percent per 100,000 people.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. More alarming is that there are about 1 million suicide attempts per year. Males are four times more likely to successfully kill themselves even though females attempt three times more than males.

These numbers among young people are continuing to rise. Military suicides in particular have become a national mental health and medical crisis. Last year, more soldiers died by suicide than from service in the war in Afghanistan. Even after their service, the mental aftermath, the depression and the post-traumatic stress disorder remain, and their risks of suicide are still significantly larger than the general population.

Another emerging problem associated with suicide has become student debt. While the evidence is anecdotal, mental health professionals and counselors for young people all suggest that more young people are trying, and often succeeding, in killing themselves because of the pressure of student debt, which is now about $1 trillion nationwide.

No discussion of suicide should occur without talk about guns. While recent tragedies have brought the issue of guns, especially assault weapons, into the national debate, the problem of handguns and suicide is actually much more alarming. In 2010, more than 19,000 suicides were attributable to firearms.

Since the overwhelming majority of young people in crisis, like my son, can easily obtain guns, we have a lethal situation in which it becomes far too easy to commit suicide because someone having a crisis can obtain access to a nearby gun.

With states like Texas considering the allowance of concealed weapons on campus, this issue will only become more important and the implications likely more grave.

This information is vital, not to instill fear, but to educate. On campus, we have some of the groups most at risk: young people under stress, students on medications such as Ritalin or Adderall, military veterans and students in debt.

The best approach is to talk to someone about these problems or to ask people who seem troubled if they’re doing okay. The UH Counseling and Psychological Services in the Student Service Center 1 Building is available to confidentially talk to students, but we need to get the University involved in having more suicide education programs during orientation and at other times.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which also has a campus chapter, has great resources and information at www.afsp.org. Sometimes, something as simple as asking someone if he or she is all right or needs to talk can be the difference between life and death.

A few months ago, NFL player Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and himself. After, the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback and his teammate, Brady Quinn, spoke to the media.

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn said. “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking about what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?”

Quinn’s observation is an important one. Communication is key to educating about and preventing suicides. None of this information is useful if we only receive it after the fact, like I have. I worried about Kelsey but never realized how much pain he felt; however, it is possible to talk to others, to avoid having guns nearby and to seek help. Maybe then a lot fewer people will be commemorating anniversaries like I will be on March 11.

Robert Buzzanco is a professor of history.

[email protected]

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