MOUNT VERNON —“It’s like a downward spiral, and you have tunnel vision — all you can think about is escaping the pain.”
“I can’t change what has happened but I can use what has happened to enlighten. ... We feel that if we hide behind closed doors and don’t tell our story then our son will have died for nothing.”
“I felt like nobody could help me. ... I want these kids to know they are not the only person going through that.”
“We learned very quickly after our son died; you don’t know what people are going through in their own lives.”
This past week the News asked questions about issues surrounding the apparent increase in the number of suicides and suicide attempts in Knox County. These are the voices that answered.
While the resulting dialogue has hopefully raised awareness of the far-reaching effects these deaths have had on the community, the conversation also raises the question, “What can we, as a community, do to address the problem and reach out to our neighbors who have lost hope?”
This week, the Knox County Health Department and Moundbuilders Guidance Center announced the planning of the Knox County Suicide Prevention Coalition. Pam Palm, health promotions director for the health department, said it will be formed as a subcommittee of the Knox County Wellness Coalition.
Palm said the group’s first meeting is scheduled for April 21 at 10 a.m. at the health department. She said representatives of many county agencies will be a part of the coalition, and the public is encouraged to attend.
Lynne Agapi-Gilligan, executive director of Moundbuilders Guidance Center, said she is excited to be a part of the new committee.
“My hope is that we can raise awareness, and that we can have an ongoing dialogue about this problem,” Agapi-Gilligan said. “I hope it will be a topic that will remain in the forefront of our community concerns.”
Palm said the health department decided to step up the local suicide prevention campaign following an apparent increase in suicides locally and nationally.
She explained that historically the health department has responded to local concerns regarding similar issues.
“Back in the ’90s we had one of the highest suicide rates among teens in the country,” Palm said. “Regardless of the number of suicides that there are, regardless of the methods that are used, regardless of the ages [of those committing suicide], suicide is still a preventable death.
“Suicide is a public health problem that stretches across boundaries,” she added.
Palm said a suicide touches not only the person’s immediate family, but also has an impact on neighbors, co-workers and extended family members.
Carolyn Givens, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, said the new county initiative will complement the extensive work in suicide prevention now under way at a state level. She said prevention can involve research and public education campaigns focusing on the treatment of depression, a mental illness which is the No. 1 contributing risk factor for a suicide attempt.
“We have a responsibility, just like with other chronic illnesses, to let people know depression is treatable, and people can recover,” Givens said.
She said too often another frequently contributing risk factor is a stigma attached to seeking treatment for depression and substance abuse.
“We have to offer people hope, and let them know that we don’t look at these issues as if they’re character flaws,” Givens said.
The current economic climate has taken hope from people who are already battling depression and substance abuse, said Givens.
“Unemployment, home foreclosures and the economy contribute to the risk [of suicide] particularly in those that are already vulnerable,” she explained. “This can leave them feeling isolated and hopeless.”
Maj. Robert Bender, commander of the Mount Vernon branch of The Salvation Army, believes it is up to members of the community to begin breaking down those walls of isolation which can separate individuals from neighbors.
“I remember as a kid, neighbors did watch out for each other,” Bender said. “I think we’ve goy to start tearing down those walls and start checking on each other as neighbors.”
Danville Police Chief Monte Vance, who is also an ordained minister, emphasized the importance a single interaction can have in the life of someone who is on the brink of giving up.
“There may be 50 people who drive by and don’t stop,” Vance said. “Are we going to be that one? The one who shows compassion?”
Refraining from judgment and instead, taking a moment to listen, could be the quiet gesture which carries someone in crisis through one more day.
“It’s the simplest little thing,” Vance said.
He urged people to remember “it’s up to all of us to support one another because we are not in this alone.”
“We’ve all faced struggles in our life,” he said.
Dodie Melvin, executive director of Mental Health America of Knox County, said it hurts the entire community when its members quietly grow hopeless while others race by and ignore their suffering.
“We walk by somebody and put our heads down,” Melvin said. “But it only takes a second to ask how someone is doing and take the time to listen. That’s what we need to do more of.”
Givens said while Ohio moves toward a more accurate statewide reporting system to track actual suicide statistics and trends, professionals and community members alike need to focus their energies on awareness and intervention — two of the goals of the new Knox County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
“The important piece to this is recognizing that treatment works, and that we have to help people get into the care that they are needing,” Givens said.
She said every member of the community has a role to play in supporting our neighbors.
“It’s important that all of us recognize the value we add to the community,” Givens said.
Agapi-Gilligan agreed, and issued an open invitation.
“Anyone who has an interest, personal experience, or a heart for this topic is welcome to be a part of developing a community support strategy,” she said.
It is hoped the conversations regarding suicide and suicide prevention which began this week will grow and continue.
“This is an issue that for generations has floated under the radar screen,” Agapi-Gilligan said. “We don’t want to think about or talk about the topic of suicide. It’s fraught with stigma and it needs to be brought into the light.”