Globally, suicide takes the lives of more than 800,000 people annually—that’s one suicide every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization.
Locally, many families know and live with the pain of losing a loved one to suicide. They and many others work to prevent it and raise awareness.
Tuesday was World Suicide Prevention Day. In Culpeper, more than 150 people attended a Community Suicide Prevention Conference at the Germanna Daniel Technology Center to share stories of resilience, reality and hope. It was a major networking event, with more than a dozen tables set up around the large auditorium providing information about the many services available to help those in crisis.
Germanna Community College was one of the day-long program’s sponsors along with Healthy Culpeper and Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services.
“Here at Germanna, we are seeing more and more students with mental health issues—depression being a big one,” said Katey Denner, who works in counseling on the Locust Grove campus. “It’s important to provide this forum to reduce the stigma of suicide and to educate others on what we can be doing to help.”
As part of Tuesday’s program, attendees watched the 2018 documentary, “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” about a man who tried to take his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an emotional film, sparking discussion about the difficult topic that Ed Long, of Culpeper, feels is still overly stigmatized.
“The more you talk about it, the better,” said Long, who with his wife, Gloria, created the Living the Dream Foundation in 2016. The nonprofit dedicated to prevention of suicide, depression and substance abuse grew out of tragedy—the 2015 death, by suicide, of their oldest son, Ben Long.
Ben Long was just 24 when he shot himself in his parent’s basement from feelings of hopelessness tied to a heroin addiction that grew from a work injury and the use of prescribed painkillers.
“The thing that bothers me most about Ben’s death is he had no hope to find help to get off of heroin,” Ed Long said. While recent community efforts have been successful in raising the alarm about substance abuse, Long said he feels, “We’re still behind the eight ball with the whole suicide thing. We haven’t been as successful in letting the public know what is going on. There’s still such a stigma attached to it.”
For example, he said, it’s always stated that this person “committed suicide,” like they committed a crime. The terminology is a pet peeve for Ed Long, who prefers, “completed suicide.” It’s still not socially acceptable to ask for help, he added.
“If you tell someone you are having mental health issues, you’re afraid you’ll be branded a nut and locked away in a padded room for the rest of your life,” Long said. “There’s still a lot of that going on in the world.”
Going on in Culpeper is a broad coalition—including Living the Dream Foundation—working to end the stigma and offer hope. Team Jordan is a suicide prevention coalition formed in alliance with Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services, a major local provider of mental health services. Come As You Are focuses on Substance Abuse Prevention, while the Rusty Bowers Suicide Prevention Coalition aims to do as its name states.
Sally Morgan is director of the Mental Health Association serving Fauquier and Rappahannock counties with a mission of promoting and facilitating mental wellness. She spoke after the film screening at Tuesday’s event as part of a six-member panel discussion. Like others, Morgan emphasized suicide prevention as requiring a community-wide effort.
“If we are to prevent psychological pain from becoming suicide as the only way out, we need an entire community that is caring and informed,” she said.
Among the work of the Mental Health Association has been offering psychiatric services and counseling at the Fauquier Free Clinic after 40 percent of patients reported symptoms of depression, Morgan said. A poll of high school students served by the association found 30 percent experienced depression or high anxiety, and 25 percent had reoccurring thoughts of suicide.
Throughout the area, Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention is offered regularly, highlighting the signs of suicide and how to help. Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services also offers Mental Health First Aid and Culpeper County Public Schools has proactively been addressing the issue, according to panel member Russell Houck, deputy director of student services.
He recounted a story from 24 years ago when he was working as an assistant principal in a Culpeper elementary school.
“We got word that an 11-year-old had gone home and shot himself,” Houck said, remembering how it difficult it was to inform his fifth grade classmates about the death and to answer a question about if the boy went to heaven or hell. “I said, ‘What does the preacher say about forgiveness?’”
Since then, Houck said, he’s been very committed to keeping kids safe. The number of students dealing with mental health issues is growing, he said, referencing a 2017 student survey of seventh to twelfth graders that showed 16 percent had thoughts of suicide and 10 percent of those had made a plan to do it. A similar survey is planned for the spring of 2020.
“We’ve got a growing problem in our community and really, the whole country,” Houck said. “There are a lot of kids who don’t know how to deal with life because of the society we set up for them.”
The school administrator took aim at the 24-hour cycle of bad news kids are bombarded with, saying, “No wonder they’re anxious.” Social media has contributed to the problem as well, Houck said.
“Every kid now is a celebrity and they have a social media persona they need to maintain—God forbid something should tarnish that,” he said. “Anything they do during the day in school will be the talk of the night on social media.”
Addressing such issues, CCPS added social/emotional wellbeing to its high school student wellness program that formerly consisted only of good nutrition and physical activity. And, for the first time, all preschool to eighth grade students are receiving a social/emotional curriculum dealing with topics such as communication, self-regulation and how to describe their feelings.
Gatekeeper training is given to sixth and ninth graders and the elementary schools are served by a behavior interventionist, Houck said.
Panel member Nick Christner, vice chairman of Team Jordan, said his group’s mission is reaching people before they reach that crisis moment in their lives. That is done through training others to recognize the warning signs of suicide and directing those at risk to the resources they need. Team Jordan also supports local youth groups, including Girls on the Run, a learning program for girls age 8 to 13.
The groups supported by Team Jordan build self-esteem and self-confidence, Christner said, “So when something traumatic comes their way they are better equipped to handle it.” He stated an alarming statistic—the second leading cause of death among girls aged 10 to 14 is suicide.
“Suicide prevention takes a community-wide response,” Christner said. “It’s a community-wide responsibility.”
Prevention Specialist Alan Rasmussen has trained more than 35,000 people through Gatekeepers, the majority of them young people, he said.
“People show you signs because they want you to help,” Rasmussen said, encouraging all in attendance to keep talking about suicide. “Come forward if you are having a problem—bullying and family problems are the two biggest issues for local students. Come forward if you know someone who is having a problem.”
Behavioral clues that someone might be contemplating suicide include: taking unnecessary risks; impulsive, reckless, unexplained anger; aggression, irritability, anxiety; expressing feelings of being trapped/no way out; self-destructive acts; perfectionism; seeking access to guns or other means; withdrawal from friends, family, hobbies; sudden changes in school or work performance; increased apathy or feelings of hopelessness; and eating or sleeping disturbances.
The local Mental Health Crisis Line is 540/825-5656. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.