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updated: 4/30/2013 8:24 AM

Deadlier than murders and car crashes, suicide is often a secret

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Nearly every day we see stories about some heinous murder or a tragic auto fatality. They remind us to take precautions to protect ourselves and our kids from such mayhem. But there is another shocking act of violence that we seldom talk about, even though it kills more Americans than either murder or auto accidents -- suicide.

An estimated 32,000 people die in traffic crashes each year. Homicides kill about 16,000 more. But more than 38,000 Americans die from suicide each year.

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The mere perception that a stranger might be targeting kids on the way to school leads to a flurry of official text messages, emails and phone calls urging parents and kids to take precautions. But the threat of suicide often gets overlooked.

This spring, at least three local suburban teenagers have died from suicide.

Experts say teen suicide increases every April and peaks in May, notes Stefanie Norris, executive director of Willow House, the Riverwoods-based organization dedicated to the needs of grieving children and their families.

That's why Willow House and the Lauri S. Bauer Foundation for Sudden Loss are hosting a free public event called "Understanding, Preventing and Coping with Teen Suicide," from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Westin Chicago Northshore, 601 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wheeling. For more information, phone (847) 236-9300 or visit willowhouse.org or tulipsforlauri.org.

"Mental illness is exactly that. It's an illness, just like cancer," says Scott Bauer, a Long Grove father of three teenage boys who responded to the heart-related death of his wife, Lauri, by founding a charity in her name that funds counseling and other services for children coping with a loss.

People need more information and more discussions about suicide and mental illness, Bauer says, but he adds that the topic still has a stigma that makes people avoid it.

A teen who struggles with an illness such as cancer often is joined in that fight by a large support group that makes T-shirts or walks in charity events to show how much they care. Even if the young person dies, that support group remembers the life and praises the fight. A teen who struggles with depression generally doesn't enjoy that same public support. If the illness ends in suicide, the death often leads to an uncomfortable silence or a desire to assign blame.

"They don't want to die. They just want to feel better," says Peggy Kubert, one of Wednesday's speakers and the executive director of Erika's Lighthouse, a suburban-based grass-roots, educational organization dedicated to raising awareness of adolescent depression and mental health issues. "These are illnesses that are treatable."

Wednesday's conference, which also features presentations by Nancy Perlson (the Illinois coordinator for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's survivor outreach program) and noted psychiatry professor and suicide expert David C. Clark, will include information about recognizing the signs of depression and confronting issues that can lead to suicide.

People apparently do want help. After one of our recent teen suicides, "we were overwhelmed with calls," says Norris of Willow House. "That opens up fears for parents. People are not well-versed at all. Suicide is still not discussed openly."

The conference should move that discussion forward.

"Information is power. And true information, not readily available about suicide, is even more powerful," Norris says.

She says she recently realized that she needs to explain the issue to adults the same way she does with children, talking about "psychic ache" and mental illness in the same, simple way people talk about a physical pain and other diseases.

Perlson says she doesn't use the phrase "committed suicide," because "commit" carries an unfair accusation. People die of suicide, she says.

"Suicide is the result of a mental illness, and a mental illness is a disorder of the brain," she says.

As with most diseases, mental illnesses have a protocol for treatment.

"If you have diabetes, you take insulin. With mental illness, you might be on medications for the rest of your life," Perlson says. "We want to give them the tools."

The issue is complicated for parents, teens, friends, teachers, social workers, the media and everyone looking for help or coping with the issue. Perlson says. But progress starts with discussions about the topic.

"People want to hide that. They want to shut that door. And it's sad," Bauer says. "By talking about it, we hopefully open up that door that has been closed for many families."

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