MOUNT VERNON — Although statistics show senior citizens, teens and males are at greater risk for suicide than other demographic groups, local health officials point out that suicides and suicide attempts have affected the Knox County community across the board.
“It is a universal problem that reaches out across boundaries,” said Pam Palm, director of health promotions for the Knox County Health Department.
Lynn Agapi-Gilligan, executive director of Moundbuilders Guidance Center, said people from all socioeconomic groups, of all ages and both genders, can find themselves in the grip of despair and hopelessness that can lead to suicide. Those who have gone through the loss of loved ones, marriages, jobs, and homes and financial security are in a vulnerable position.
Carolyn Givens, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, said although the current economic turmoil does not directly cause suicides on its own, it is a contributing factor in suicide risk.
Financial strain can lead to or worsen depression. Unemployment and foreclosure can lead to relationship problems and substance abuse which can also contribute to suicide risk. Staff at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center refers to this as a “chain of adversity.”
Mount Vernon resident Pam Roberts said childhood abuse and a lifelong battle with depression left her unable to cope with losses in her life, leading her to consider suicide more than once.
The end of a treasured relationship in high school, and later, the loss of her daughter in a car accident, sent Roberts into tailspins which led her to the desire to end her life.
“When you threw something big in there, it would just throw me off of the edge,” Roberts recalled.
Roberts said about seven months after her daughter’s death, she felt she could no longer deal with the pain. After confiding in her physician, Roberts was started on antidepressants, which she said stabilized her emotions enough that she was able to begin to learn how to cope with her tremendous grief for her daughter.
Although traumatic losses can make someone more vulnerable to suicidal feelings, substance abuse also places an individual at higher risk for suicide.
Rick Schlegel, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Freedom Center of Knox County, said drugs and alcohol can raise a person’s suicide risk significantly.
“Not only can drug and alcohol usage make a total mess of their life,” Schlegel said, “but when people are thinking about suicide, the use of alcohol or drugs makes them much more likely to follow through.”
Mark, a 56-year-old Centerburg resident, said he originally turned to alcohol to mask emotional pain.
“I remember wanting to do anything just to make the pain stop,” he said.
“It was so thick, and there didn’t seem to be any escape,” Mark, who is now sober, recalled. “Alcohol was the only way I could numb that pain, and when that stopped working, it was just more than I could handle. I didn’t want to feel it; it was too much. I lost a lot of things and people I can never get back when I was drinking, and some days that was just too much.”
At the age of 51, Mark carried out his plan to the point of purchasing a gun and writing a suicide note to his sister. A friend’s urging to come to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting one night may have saved Mark’s life.
He is now involved with a church, and continues to attend AA meetings.
“My church has made a big difference, they are like a family,” he said.
Roberts credits her faith, the passage of time and medication with helping her cope with her grief, and move on with her life. She now speaks to students about her experience with depression and suicidal feelings.
“I felt like no one could help me,” Roberts said. “But I learned that I wasn’t alone.”
She said talking about her experiences with others is a way to take the pain she lived through and turn it into something positive.
When a member of the community is lost to suicide, friends and loved ones often find themselves asking if there were missed warning signs or indications the person was planning to take his or her life.
According to suicide prevention experts, not all suicidal individuals exhibit obvious signals before completing the act. However, certain “red flags” should never be ignored.
Givens said there are overt and acute signs of a suicidal crisis which require immediate help from a mental health provider. If someone threatens to hurt or kill themselves, looks for the means to do so, or begins to talk or write about death, dying and suicide in a way that is out of the ordinary for that person, seek immediate help for that person and do not leave them alone.
Roberts said she is bothered by the myth that people who talk about killing themselves will not actually do it.
“You have to take people seriously when they are talking like that,” she said. “It’s important to let them know they are not the only person going through it, they are not alone.”
More subtle indications that someone could be contemplating suicide, can be more difficult to assess, according to the staff at OSPF. Hopelessness, rage, anger, seeking revenge, acting recklessly and engaging in risky behavior, feeling trapped, and an increase in drug or alcohol use are all warning signs which could indicate a person is headed for a suicidal crisis.
Roberts said reaching out to someone in this kind of crisis can save that person’s life.
“You need to let them know there is hope,” she said. “With medication, support groups and counseling, or a combination of one or the other, it really can get better.”
She said by choosing to seek help, she was able to remain in the lives of her family, including five grandchildren born since her daughter passed away.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that for anything,” she said. “You just don’t know; it might be tomorrow that something’s going to get better.”
Mark agrees. He said his church family, and a job he started two years ago, are parts of his life he does not take for granted because he almost missed them.
“Now having gone through the rough parts, I try to take it all one step at a time. Nothing is easy, but I’m glad I’m here,” he said.
If you, or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide, you can call 1-800-273-TALK 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Thursday, the News will look at the personal stories of people who have endured the loss of a loved one to suicide, and the resources available to assist grieving families.