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A Call For Suicide Prevention

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher is issuing a national call to action on what he describes as a growing epidemic: suicide. CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer reports.

Declaring it a "serious public health problem," Satcher announced an effort to educate school counselors, parents and even hairdressers on how to spot signs of trouble.

Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming about 30,000 lives in 1997, compared with fewer than 19,000 homicides.

"Almost 2,000 people attempt suicide every day, and so it is a widespread problem in all populations, in all age groups," Satcher told CBS News.

Joining Satcher in his announcement was Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore and an advocate for mental health issues.

"This is a national tragedy and a public health problem demanding national leadership," said Mrs. Gore.

The new program hopes to help people like Doris Smith who was shunned after her son killed himself.

"I was confronted with the stigma and the shame," she says. "I was told blacks do not commit suicide."

Smith, president of the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network, calls for more awareness, prevention efforts and understanding of survivors of people who commit suicide.

Beyond actual suicides, there are many more failed attempts: About a half-million Americans are treated in an emergency room each year after trying to kill themselves.

White men age 65 and older are the most likely to commit suicide, accounting for 20 percent of the cases. And the suicide rate has doubled since 1980 among children ages 10 to 14.

This is the first time a surgeon general has taken up suicide -- or even mental health -- as an issue. A full and comprehensive report on all facets of mental health is expected by the end of the year, and a comprehensive national suicide strategy is expected in early 2000.

Wednesday's report grew out of a conference on suicide prevention in Reno, Nev., last October. Experts compiled 81 recommendations, some of which needed further refinement.

But there were 15 ideas that were broadly accepted, so Satcher opted to begin work on those now.

"Our feeling was, this is too important to wait for the full-blown, comprehensive strategy," said Damon Thompson, Satcher's spokesman. "It's simple, it's understandable, and there's near universal agreement that these 15 steps can prevent suicide."

Many of the 15 recommendations involve educating the public to recognize when someone seems at risk of suicide and how to get that person help. That includes doctors and nurses, but also clergy and others who interact with people and hear about their problems.

"We want coaches, we want school teachers, we want hairdressers, we want people who interact with the community," Thompson said. "It's going to take outreach, it's going to take training. It's going to take communitie to realize it's got to be a priority."

Satcher also announced a new outreach campaign to many of these groups to raise awareness of the issue, develop strategies to identify people at risk and improve quality of treatment.

More specifically, the Clinton administration planned to help distribute a PBS video called "Depression: On the Edge" to school counselors to help them detect teen depression. Mrs. Gore and Satcher are also working with the Ad Council and MTV to develop a campaign reducing the stigma of mental illness. That isn't expected until late this year or early next.

And the Department of Health and Human Services plans to work with organizations like Meals on Wheels to identify people who may be at risk.

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