EAST MOLINE — Kevin Atwood and his wife, Jaime, returned last week from Washington, D.C., after pressing their case for more federal help to prevent suicides, an issue close to their hearts.
They founded Foster's Voice, in honor of their son, Foster, a 19-year-old United Township High School graduate who died by suicide July 21, 2017. The group works to raise awareness about suicide, and help those who are hurting and prevent others from taking their life.
Kevin Atwood said Thursday they met in the nation's capital during a national forum of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP, to support a bill that would create a new three-digit hotline, and to seek more federal funding for suicide prevention. He met with Iowa's U.S. senators and a number of Congressional representatives.
“We are asking for $150 million for fiscal year 2020, for research so we can get to the bottom of this,” Atwood said. “There's not one cause; we need to find out what's going on, to bring the numbers down.”
The U.S. government spends more than $3 billion a year on Ebola research, he noted, citing just two deaths from that virus. The AFSP gets $5 million in federal funding, and the National Institutes of Health got about $100 million in 2017 to address suicide.
Each year, more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide, and the rate has risen over the past decade, according to AFSP. In Illinois, 1,415 people took their lives in 2016, (the third-leading cause of death for ages 15-24, the AFSP says, and there were 451 Iowa deaths by suicide the same year, the second-leading cause of death for ages 15-24.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found total suicides increased 25.4 percent from 1999 to 2016, as every state but Nevada saw an increase. Iowa's total suicides jumped over 36 percent in that period, and 22.8 percent in Illinois.
The CDC study was planned 18 months ago and just happened to be released between the high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade (June 5) and chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain (June 8), Atwood said, noting that same week, 850 other American lives were lost to suicide.
“Their lives were just as important, not that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were any less, but equal,” he said. “If I've learned anything in the past 11 months as I was thrown into this, nobody — I mean nobody, including myself — has a free pass when it comes to suicide. It can affect anybody; we basically lost our son in a three-month period.”
“Foster's Voice is great for our community. We're here to support them,” Atwood said, noting they awarded five $1,000 scholarships to high-school seniors this year, and raise money for group bracelets and T-shirts.
“AFSP has resources we just don't have. We have to bring that to our congressmen and women; it's time America stands up and says we're going to take our mental health as seriously as other things," he said.
He has spoken at 12 Quad-City schools so far, mainly high schools and colleges. “All the teachers are overwhelmed with the amount of kids that are depressed, ridden with anxiety or suffer some form of mental illness,” Atwood said.
The 1988 Bettendorf High School graduate spoke there in December , just three days after a Bettendorf senior took his life.
In Washington, Atwood also supported an updated national suicide prevention hotline, to go to a three-digit number, “something that everybody would know, like 911,” he said.
The House bill (H.R. 2345) would examine the feasibility of designating a three-digit code for this purpose and the effectiveness of the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Atwood said the measure has passed the Senate and House.
After the Spade and Bourdain suicides, counselors at more than 150 crisis centers in the U.S. fielded 65 percent more phone calls compared to the previous week for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“We have to break that stigma,” Atwood said of those who need help, to ask for it and get it. “We need to let people know its OK step forward and say they need help. It's not a death sentence."
“It's like a war zone,” he said of suicides, and people like Foster can “do such a great job of covering it up. They look at it as a sign of weakness. It takes a lot of strength to come forward.”