By Michael Hartwell

MediaNews

LANCASTER -- Local elected officials pledged to help make suicide prevention a priority on Beacon Hill Friday morning at Heywood Hospital during the first meeting of the legislative subcommittee of the Greater Gardner Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Former state Sen. Bob Antonioni is using his connections to help bring legislators on board so they can use their "networks, influence and connections" to help combat the north central Massachusetts area's high suicide rate.

"It's time to open the door and let in the light," said Antonioni, who lost his brother to suicide in 1999 and has spoken openly about his own struggles with depression.

Legislators who attended were state Sens. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, and Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, and state reps Jon Zlotnik, D-Gardner, and Anne Gobi, D-Spencer. A staff member for state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, also attended, as did representatives from the Greater Gardner Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Brewer said society has made a lot of progress on suicide and other mental-health issues over the past few decades, and there's more room to grow.

"Mental-health issues got people hanged during the Salem witch trials. Epileptic seizures got people burned at the stake. We've made a lot of progress in 300 years," he added.

Barbara Nealon, director of social service at Heywood Hospital, said they saw a large number of suicides a few years ago, but there was a three-year lag from when events happened to when the statistics were available from the state. They now get suicide numbers from the state police and now know there were 44 suicide deaths in the region in 2012 and 2013.

Four of them were teens and adolescents.

Nealon said there is some good news: The area had no reported suicide deaths in January and February of this year. The March statistics are not available yet.

She said the area's demographics alone do not explain the high suicide rate in greater Gardner. Other suspected factors in the region are social and physical isolation, bad economic conditions and a lack of medical resources.

Flanagan said suicide is part of the larger issue of mental health being neglected in the state. She said some of it comes from the effort to stop institutionalizing patients and provide them with a community-based treatment.

"The reality is some people can not handle being on the outside," said Flanagan.

She said too many people are afraid to discuss issues like suicide and substance abuse and fail to see them as legitimate medical concerns on par with heart disease.

"Enough is enough, we need to stop tiptoeing around this and talk about mental health," said Flanagan.

Zlotnik said the public needs to learn more about suicide and depression, which will allow more people to intervene and save someone.

"If you see someone on the street, the average person doesn't know if that person is having a bad day or if they're depressed," he said.

Antonioni said he, Nealon and Michael Ellis, the Men's Suicide Prevention Project coordinator, will draft a list of short-term and long-term goals for the committee and send copies of the list to the lawmakers' offices.

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