Seeking to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds the subject of suicide, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane shared her own tale of loss Monday, describing her husband Peter's death 20 months ago with more intimacy than some might expect before an audience of nearly 400.
But Zane said she wants to speak out -- as difficult as it is -- because so many others do not, reflecting the shame and cultural stigma that limits awareness and understanding of an issue that touches so many.
"We cannot prevent suicide if we don't talk about it," Zane said. "This is a preventable death in most cases. We have to end the silence."
Her presentation was part of a daylong symposium on suicide prevention organized by the Sonoma County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill designed to shed light on such issues as warning signs and interventions.
But the discussion also focused on the stunning prevalence of suicide in a culture more comfortable with looking the other way.
Nationally, about 100 people a day take their lives, federal officials say.
In Sonoma County, 69 people died of self-inflicted injuries last year, according to the county Coroner's Office. Twenty were women. Forty-nine were males. Six were under age 20.
And yet, health officials said, few people recognize suicide as the critical public health issue that it is.
To highlight the importance of prevention, the federal government on Monday announced it will boost staff by 50 percent at the national hotline -- 1-800-273-TALK. It also will provide $55.6 million for state and local programs, highlight Facebook features that link distressed users to counselors and begin public service announcements urging the public to seek help if they spot signs that someone is suicidal.
Presenters at the local conference, underwritten by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa, underscored the importance of awareness.
Suicide "is 100 percent preventable," said David France, deputy director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Zane's husband, Peter Kingston, hanged himself Jan. 18, 2011, after a resurgence of anxiety and depression against which he had struggled much of his life.
He had recently resigned as finance director for Ursuline High School and, Zane said, he felt responsible -- undeservedly, she said -- for economic problems that prompted the all-girl Catholic school to announce two months earlier that it was closing after 130 years.
Zane, knowing Kingston had attempted suicide 14 years earlier, said she was worried about his condition and talked with him often about how he was coping. And he did appear to be coping, she said.
But she said, in retrospect she realized he had spent the previous few weeks reminiscing about his life. she said he was "acting like a dying man, and I didn't see it at the time."
Later communications with his physician and therapist also pointed out oversights, such as under medication, that could have made a difference for him.
Zane said Kingston died at age 56, putting him in a surprising high-risk group: White men, age 45 to 60.
Health officials say other high-risk groups include American Indians ages 15 to 34; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth; and military veterans.
Anyone can learn to recognize signs that someone may be contemplating suicide and learn to ask the right questions to help identify those at risk, said Katie Bivin, a member of the Sonoma County Crisis Assessment, Prevention and Education Team for Transitional Youth ages 16 to 25.