A legislative panel is calling for a statewide suicide prevention coordinator to help lower Nevada's second-highest-in-the-nation suicide rate.
The plan is among 19 recommendations that the Interim Legislative Subcommittee on Suicide Prevention will send to the 2003 Legislature.
Panel members listened for a year to testimony from survivors, clergy, law enforcement personnel and mental health workers. They also sifted through hundreds of pages of reports.
Four hundred people killed themselves in Nevada during 2000, for a rate of 21.3 per 100,000 population, according to the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C.
The rate was second only to Alaska, which reported 22 suicides per 100,000 for a total of 137 deaths. The national average was 10.7 for a total of 29,350 deaths. Figures for 2001 are not yet available.
"Let that figure sink in -- 400 people -- that's more than one person a day. It's epidemic," Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Leslie, a panel member, blames the high rate on what she calls Nevada's inadequate access to public mental health services.
"If you break your arm as a child, you are more likely to get your insurance to pay for that; if you have a broken mind, it's very difficult to find the care you need," she said. "Just talking about it makes me angry that we're not doing more."
Sen. Ann O'Connell, R-Las Vegas, committee chairwoman, said a constituent asked her to bring Nevada's suicide problem to the Legislature.
"Once I had the bill in for study, I was absolutely floored at how many people I knew who had lost family members and friends to suicide," she said. "Even within the small family of our Legislature, there is a tremendous number of survivors."
O'Connell said people still attach a stigma to suicide and are reluctant to discuss it.
"In the rural areas, we found the problem to be different than in the metropolitan areas," she said. "We found seniors who were more or less putting themselves down, like you would with an animal that has outlived its usefulness. They felt they had lived through the purpose of their lives and decided to end it."
John McIntosh, chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University South Bend, said it has been suggested that states that stress rugged individualism and have easy access to guns have a higher rate.
"Nevada has the additional issue of transient populations that might be of importance," he said.
"No one knows with any certainty why various regions or states of the country have higher vs. lower rates," he added.
The panel also is urging the Legislature to:
--Implement a state suicide prevention plan and program.
--Improve local suicide prevention services.
--Enhance suicide prevention training.
--Address suicide prevention in public schools.
--Increase state mental health services.
--Recognize the relationship of substance abuse to suicide.
Leslie said the plan brings attention to a subject that is long overdue.
"First, we have to admit we have a public health epidemic," she said. "Suicide is just tragic -- the human waste and the economic waste. It is really the right time to take on this problem."