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U.S. surgeon-general focuses on suicide, mental health

David Satcher
David Satcher  
April 17, 1998
Web posted at: 12:43 p.m. EDT (1643 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. surgeon-general on Friday commissioned a report on suicide, and said it was time U.S. citizens have an "honest debate" on mental health.

"I'm convinced that we can shape a different future for this country as it relates to mental health and as it relates to suicide," Dr. David Satcher told a meeting of the American Society of Suicidology on Thursday.

"Many experts think hopelessness is common to suicide and homicide and violence in general," Satcher said, adding that more research was needed on the topic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22,500 people were murdered in the United States in 1995. The CDC says 31,284 people committed suicide that same year.

Suicide rates:
  • For children, ages 10 to 14, the rate has doubled during the last 15 years.
  • For white males, ages 15 to 24, the rate has tripled since 1950.
  • For African-American males, ages 15 to 24, the rate has increased more than 60 percent during the last 15 years.

    Source: American Society for Suicide Prevention

  • Satcher said he was "haunted" by the story of 15-year-old Kenny White, who committed suicide earlier this year by shooting himself in the head with a pistol in Pierre, South Dakota.

    The New York Times carried a front page story about the boy's death. The obituaries in local newspapers said only that White "died at home." Local papers also reported that until recently, people who called 911 in Pierre and said they were contemplating suicide were locked up in jail until they could be seen by a health official.

    Satcher cited White's story as an example of how little suicide is understood in the United States.

    "The people of this country desperately need to engage in an open and honest debate about mental health," Satcher said.

    The doctor hopes the report he's commissioned, due next year, will answer important questions about suicide and mental health, including questions about the effectiveness of suicide-prevention programs.

    Letizia Grasso
    Letizia Grasso  

    The son of Letizia Grasso and Nicola Berardi committed suicide by hanging himself two years ago. The couple told CNN that the stigma associated with suicide makes it harder for surviving family members to cope with the loss of a loved one.

    "So many people are uncomfortable with death. When it's a suicide death, they're extremely uncomfortable about it," Grasso said. "There's time when you feel like you're walking about with a red 'S' branded on your forehead."

    The couple believes a national campaign aimed at suicide prevention could be helpful to others.

    "The sole purpose is not to get back my son," Berardi said. "He's gone. He's gone forever. But to make sure that others will never go walking that path of sorrow."

    Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Reuters contributed to this report.


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