RICHMOND, Va. – Joshua Alburger grew up in a large, supportive family in Goochland, Virginia, says his sister, Marcie Allen. “We were nurtured, loved, respected and made to feel safe.”
Their parents had five children of their own while raising an additional five, Allen said. She said that later in life, Alburger developed a mental illness and struggled with suicidal thoughts. In 2013, at age 32, he died by suicide, leaving behind a wife of 10 years and three children.
“Joshua’s death broke my heart,” said Allen, who now works to raise awareness about how to prevent suicide.
The General Assembly will be joining her in that effort. Legislators have passed resolutions to designate the week of Sept. 10 as National Suicide Prevention Week in Virginia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking more than 43,000 lives each year. The CDC estimates that more than 1 million Americans attempt suicide annually.
Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in Virginia, resulting in more than 1,100 deaths a year.
Two identical resolutions on the subject are moving through the General Assembly:
- HJR 548, which was approved by the House last month and passed the Senate on Tuesday.
- SJR 251, which was approved by the Senate on Feb. 3 and is awaiting approval in the House.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, was the only House member to vote against HJR 548. He did so because the House refused to incorporate his proposed amendments about the relationship between suicides and guns.
“Almost 50 percent of all successful suicide attempts involve a firearm, such attempts being successful more than 82 percent of the time, making suicide by firearm the most common and most lethal means nationwide,” one of Simon’s amendments stated.
The other amendment noted that “the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention endorses incorporating suicide prevention education as a basic tenet of firearm safety and responsible gun ownership.”
“I don’t think you can have an honest conversation about suicide prevention without acknowledging the dangers of improperly stored and secured firearms,” Simon said.
Although the House rejected Simon’s amendments, the House and Senate resolutions both recognize the stigma associated with mental illness. The stigma is “discouraging persons at risk for suicide from seeking life-saving help and further traumatizes survivors of suicide loss and people with lived experience of suicide.”
Del. Richard Bell, R-Augusta County, sponsored the House resolution at the request of a constituent who had a sibling commit suicide. Bell said he believes establishing a week each year to focus on the issue will help prevent suicide.
“Raised awareness will hopefully help provide some folks who might be at risk with a way to manage their suicidal thoughts and seek help,” Bell said. “I also hope it will raise general awareness across the commonwealth that this is a form of mental illness that is often untreated and undiagnosed.”
The resolutions aren’t the General Assembly’s only efforts to curb suicides. The House has unanimously passed HB 2258, which would order a study about Virginia’s suicide prevention efforts. On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee unanimously voted in favor of the bill.
In addition, both chambers have passed and sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe HB 1777, which would require hospital psychiatric units to speak to a patient’s referring physician before denying services for the patient. However, HB 2042, which sought to make suicide prevention a part of continuing education for health care workers, died in committee.
When Joshua Alburger struggled with mental illness, his family did everything they could to help, his sister said.
“Some would say in order to have a heart for others, or at all, you have to have your heart broken – broken wide open,” Marcie Allen said. She said her brother’s death “allowed me to love beyond where I could before.”
Now, Allen makes a point of talking to others who may be at risk of suicide.
“I ask if that person is speaking with a therapist,” she said. “I tell that person the impact he or she has on me and my life. I let that person know he or she is not alone – he or she is loved and wanted. I listen when someone says he or she is struggling. I will let that person talk.”
Suicide prevention resources
If someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, support is available.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has resources online at https://afsp.org. The phone number for the foundation’s Virginia chapter is 646-632-5189.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Or text “HELLO” to 741-741.
By Haley Winn with Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.