Call it a crisis. Call it an epidemic. Call it an emergency.
While members of the Anne Arundel County Council debated the proper label for suicide, by passing Resolution 2-20 on January 21, they all agreed that more can be done to prevent it from happening.
“In 2011, we had 49 deaths from suicide,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Councilman Nathan Volke of Pasadena. “In 2017, we had 95. That’s a 93.88% increase in the number of deaths by suicide. To me, that’s a crisis. I can’t look at it any other way. I am not going to sit back and say, ‘This is just a public health issue. We should just put this on the burner of a public health issue.’ It’s not a public health issue. To anyone who’s lost someone from suicide, this is a crisis.”
Volke’s statement followed tearful testimony from community members and even the council members.
Celeste Anderson talked about her son’s fight with mental illness. Noah Anderson, a ninth-grader at Broadneck High School, was an aspiring architect who loved fishing, sailing and the Seattle Seahawks. Noah died in September 2019.
“He was handsome, he was funny, he was an artist, and he was oh so witty,” she said. “The pain of losing Noah is immeasurable and he is so missed.”
Celeste said Noah began showing signs of depression and anxiety roughly three years ago.
“Let me tell you, the system is broken,” she said. “I called psychiatrist after psychiatrist, office after office, and was told over and over, doctors were either not accepting new patients or Noah was going on a three-month waiting list for just an initial appointment. This went on for over a year of pleading for help. He was hospitalized twice at Sheppard Pratt on extended stays. Many times we had to call the police and have him escorted to the hospital for observation between these long waits for a physiatrist … He suffered silently and we were lost.”
Celeste said a psychiatrist who barely spoke to Noah instantly began writing him a prescription. The medication was known for possible suicidal thoughts in children. Failed group therapies gave her son more information on self-harm and how to hide it than actually helping him, she added.
Jillian Amodio, the founder of Moms for Mental Health, shared the sentiment that long wait times and high costs are ineffective.
“Many individuals who are suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental-health-related issues are encouraged to reach out, but what happens when their mental health issues have such a strangling grip on them that they’re unable to do so?” she asked. “If a person was dangling from a cliff, trapped in rough waters or suffering from a heart attack, we wouldn’t wait for them to reach out for help. We’d recognize their struggles and meet them with aid.”
For Arnold resident Kurt Svendsen, that aid came in the form of professional therapy and medication, “dumb luck” and the knowledge that he was loved.
“I have had serious thoughts of committing suicide at different periods throughout my life,” he said. “At least twice, those periods of time were so intense that I made special plans about how best to do it.”
Svendsen urged county officials to improve the disparity in access to mental health care compared with physical health care.
“The county’s mental health plan is a stepchild to the overall health plan,” he said.
Hearing the vulnerability of Anne Arundel County residents, Councilwoman Sarah Lacey admitted that she struggles with suicidal thoughts.
“To be a person, a woman, a mother of four children, a wife to my husband of almost 18 years, a daughter, a sister, an aunt – I am all those things – and yes, I struggle against the desire to take my own life, because when I am in that place, it makes the most sense compared to any other thing that I could think of or anything anyone could tell me,” Lacey said.
Fellow Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler from District 5 got emotional when thinking of 14-year-old Noah Anderson and while asking for an amendment to the bill, clarifying that suicide is not caused only by guns.
“Not all acts of suicide are [caused by] firearms; Noah’s was not,” Fiedler said. “There are many other methods that can be used, and this amendment also calls for a reduction in the stigma that is surrounding mental health and the hope that we can support our first responders and the professionals that we partner with in the community.”
The council voted unanimously for the resolution, which declares suicide a public health crisis in Anne Arundel County and requests that the Department of Health ensures adequate treatment and services to help those affected and at risk of death by suicide.
It may be too late to help Noah, but it could help countless others.
“Let’s be more proactive and support families and those suffering from mental illness from the very beginning,” Celeste said. “You can take all the guns, put nets under bridges, hide the Tylenol bottles, but if you aren’t treating the real heart of the issue — finding affordable, readily available, quality mental health care and family support — those suffering will find a way to follow through with this epidemic.”