Experts - Suicide by fire harder to handle

December 15, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Any type of suicide has a great effect on family, friends and people who know the victim, but when people kill themselves publicly with fire, it is more hurtful and harder to move past for those left behind, two experts said.

Dr. Robert DeMartino, a Bethesda, Md.-based U.S. Public Health Service psychiatrist, and Lisa Hurka Covington, a Towson, Md., chapter president of a national suicide prevention center, said Friday that suicide by fire is rare, and there is no way to tell what effect two such deaths within two weeks could have on a community.

Catherine "C.L." Widmyer, 51, of Williamsport, died Nov. 30 of self-inflicted burns. Brenda L. Hitt, 47, died last Tuesday from burns she received in a Nov. 30 fire that officials said she set to kill herself.


DeMartino, co-author of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' "Strategy for Suicide Prevention," said suicide "contagions" are known to occur mostly among youths. Two suicides by fire cannot represent a trend when there are roughly 30,000 suicides nationally each year, he said.

According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 480 suicides by fire nationally from 1999 to 2001. Of those, 144 were women.

"I think that it is pretty clear that it is a rare thing in the United States for people to take their lives this way, and even rarer for women," DeMartino said.

In suicide cases, the first thing doctors look for are signs of depression, which is treatable, although not always recognized, DeMartino said.

"Major depression is one of the most common illnesses in our population," DeMartino said. "It's very common, and family members are often surprised to know about it."

Once someone commits suicide, there statistically are five or six people closely related to the person who are deeply affected, DeMartino said.

He said when there's a suicide in a family, "there's a certain amount of stigma associated. ... (but) this kind of stigma shouldn't stop anyone from seeking help."

Covington is the founder and president of Speak, the Greater Baltimore chapter of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. She said she began speaking about suicide and working toward suicide prevention after her younger sister committed suicide 12 years ago.

"Suicide is basically the only thing not really talked about in society," Covington said. "If we're not aware of what's going on, I'm sorry, this can't be kept secret."

Broadly speaking, people who commit suicide publicly "were in pain, they weren't seeing past that. They were in a tunnel, not seeing the light beyond that," she said.

Speaking from her own experience and those of other families who have lost relatives to suicide, she said families will go through hard times.

"It's something they'll always live with," Covington said. "It never goes away. Life becomes easier to deal with, but the heartache never goes away."

DeMartino said families should look to their friends for help.

"My first thought is that even one suicide is a tragedy, and if a community can pull together and support the people that have been affected by it, then that's a community to be proud of," he said.

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