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Pat Taff remembers the distressing questions she and her husband asked themselves 11 years ago after their 22-year-old son, Brian, killed himself with a shotgun.'
"What could we have done differently? Why didn't we give him better coping skills? Why didn't we see this coming? Were we too firm with him? Were we too lenient?" said Taff, a Columbia resident who now is an activist for suicide prevention. "You want to blame yourself for everything."'
The Taff family had to deal with a situation that faces a growing number of people locally and nationally. Suicides in Beaufort County were more than twice as frequent last year than in 2002, reaching nearly the highest rate ever reported in the county. '
Last year, 21 men and women from 27 to 90 years old killed themselves in Beaufort County compared with nine in 2002, according to the Beaufort County coroner's office. There were nine suicides in 2001 and five in 2000.'
The day before he shot himself, leaving no note and many questions, Brian and his mom discussed his plans to go to culinary school in hopes of becoming a professional chef. But that night he was cited for driving under the influence, his second offense. There was a history of depression in the Taff family, and Brian had struggled to cope with his constantly moving military family.'
"I'm sure he saw it as a loss of his freedom, a loss of his car, a loss of his home, and that can be pretty overwhelming when you're 22," Taff said.'
<b>A means to an end </b>'
Suicide is also a mental illness. '
Research suggests that depression and suicidal behavior can be linked to a decrease in the brain's level of serotonin, a chemical that affects mood, emotion, sleep and appetite, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.'
"It's definitely a growing problem, and it's growing nationwide," said Susan South, director of the 18-bed adult mental health unit at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. '
"Untreated depression particularly is growing in the elderly population, probably because we have more elderly. The population is graying, and the tendency to become depressed (is growing)."'
A surprising local trend, Coroner Curt Copeland agreed, is suicide among seniors. '
Five Beaufort County residents over 65 killed themselves last year.'
"So many of them are older people," Copeland said. "Do they come down (to Hilton Head) in anticipation of a wonderful retirement that doesn't work out that way?"'
Copeland said dealing with families after a suicide is one of his most difficult calls. "It's tough to find words," he said, "knowing that words are almost meaningless."'
There are no local support groups for Beaufort County suicide survivors who want to discuss what it's like to lose a friend or family member, although there are therapy groups for various mental illnesses that include suicide. There are suicide survivor support groups in Anderson, Greenville, Columbia and Charleston, but Taff said there are too few in the state.'
South Carolina is behind most states in addressing suicide prevention and offering suicide support groups, said Taff, who serves off education director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Columbia. The alliance offers a 12-week program for suicide survivors statewide.'
"There's no central database of survivors,"Taff said. Her goal is to build a database of survivors by next year and begin a statewide discussion of suicide prevention.'
Taff agreed to join the Suicide Prevention Task Force formed last fall in South Carolina. The task force has 10 members, including professors from the University of South Carolina, doctors from the Medical University of South Carolina and other mental illness scholars.'
As the only suicide survivor on the task force, Taff's perspective is worth what many doctors cannot claim firsthand knowledge of: She lost her son and has a personal, lifelong goal of saving someone else's son, she said.'
"We're not where we need to be," Taff said. "What we need to do is move people toward advocacy, first of all. When you present a problem and say, 'This is what we've got and this is what we need to do,' then you need to move toward advocacy to solve these problems."'
<b>By the numbers </b>'
The spike in suicides among all age groups last year in Beaufort County was an anomaly, Copeland said. About a decade ago, Beaufort County reached its all-time high of 24 suicides. Copeland said the number of suicides in Beaufort County averages between 10 to 15 a year.'
"Even one is enough to cause concern," said the Rev. Christopher Bennett, deputy director for religious ministry on Parris Island, where two Marines, a 31-year-old drill instructor and a 38-year-old weapons training chief, killed themselves in separate instances last month.'
Gary Noble, a psychiatrist and head of the behavioral health clinic at Naval Hospital Beaufort, said he handles several cases a week of active duty military or a military relative who has had suicidal thoughts or has attempted suicide.'
"My main concern is the people that don't come forward out of concern that if they go and seek help that they'll be stigmatized, someone will call them crazy or psycho, or they'll lose there job, and that's not the case. In the military, that's not the case," he said.'
Suicide was the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States in 2001; 10.7 of every 100,000 Americans kill themselves, according to the National Institute for Mental Health.'
Men kill themselves four times more frequently than women, and whites are twice as likely to kill themselves as nonwhites, the institute reports. The elderly have a suidide rate than 50 percent higher than the nation as a whole.'
In South Carolina, there were 466 suicides in 2002, according to the most recent data compiled by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. There are an average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in South Carolina, said agency spokeswoman Jan Easterling.