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U.S. plans big push to cut suicides

Surgeon general unveils strategy

Monday, April 30, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The nation's top doctor said yesterday he would soon unveil a new national strategy aimed at preventing suicide, which he said was responsible for 30,000 deaths a year in America.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher told the University of Pittsburgh's 2001 graduating class that much more attention must be paid to depression and other forms of mental illness, which he said causes 80 percent to 90 percent of the suicides in this country.

In addition, he said the social stigma must be removed from depression because it keeps people from seeking treatment. In most cases depression, though usually viewed as a psychological problem, really has its causes in physical problems.

"If we are able to recognize and diagnose depression early, we should be able to prevent many of the suicides that are taking place today," he said.

Satcher spoke to a crowd of at least 10,000 graduates, their families and friends who jammed Mellon Arena yesterday afternoon.

Pitt conferred undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees on more than 6,500 students at the main campus in Oakland as well as 1,000 additional degrees on students at the regional campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville.

Satcher said his "National Strategy on Suicide Prevention" had been 18 months in the making and would be released Wednesday during a news conference in Washington, D.C.

He said the report would focus on three areas: the need to make Americans more aware "of the magnitude and nature of the problem of suicide," better ways to diagnose and help people suffering from mental illness to keep them from taking their own lives, and the need for more research into the problem.

"As a society we have treated suicide as something foreign," Satcher said. "If somebody commits suicide, everybody wants to know: Was it because he had a bad day or broke up with his girlfriend or his wife?

"But the fact of the matter is, 80 [percent] to 90 percent of the time people who commit suicide are suffering from a mental illness," and in many cases such an illness has physical causes and is treatable.

"People go around blaming themselves for years after losing a loved one, and that's sad. They can't figure out why it happened and it destroys their own lives. That has to end."

Satcher has been surgeon general since February 1998. He was named by President Bill Clinton and was kept on by President Bush.

As he has done repeatedly in the past, Satcher yesterday urged people to stop smoking, to turn off the TV and get more exercise, and to eat diets with more fruits and vegetables and less fatty foods.

He said the nicotine in cigarettes is a powerful drug and urged Congress to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate it.

"You might call him the nation's family doctor," Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said when he introduced Satcher to the crowd inside the arena.

Pitt officials awarded Satcher an honorary degree of doctor of public health.

Since 1969, Pitt has held its graduation ceremony at the arena, but that will change starting next April. The commencement will be moved on campus to the $75 million John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center, Nordenberg said.

The new center, now being built where Pitt Stadium used to stand, is to be finished by January, he said. It will have 12,500 seats and will also be used for men's and women's basketball, along with many other student activities.



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