Suicide: Talking through a taboo subject
The Commercial Dispatch - 9/3/2017
More than 250 bags will be strewn across the lawn in front of the cafeteria on Mississippi University for Women's campus Tuesday -- each one containing a reminder of the 44,000 people per year who take their own lives.
The university's counseling center staff spent the week stuffing the backpacks and totes with newspaper and attaching suicide statistics and pictures of victims. Counselor Rob'Dreka Shaw hopes the bags catch students' eye and pique their curiosity.
"We wanted to bring attention," Shaw said. "(The students) are going to walk by the cafeteria and see these and instantly (think), 'What is this?'"
The event kicks of MUW's Suicide Prevention Week, a week for mental health professionals to raise awareness of the 10th leading cause of death in the country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention -- and the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, the MUW counselors said.
The key to Suicide Prevention Week is awareness. Attached to each bag is a fact or statistic about suicide, a quote from a survivor or victim or a picture and name of someone who committed suicide -- names that include everyone from celebrities like comedian Robin Williams to Golden Triangle locals.
The staff collected the pictures and stories from news sources online. One story gave counseling intern Molly Rafaely pause as she was attaching it. It told the death of a student from the University of Pennsylvania who left presents for her family, wrote a note and jumped from the top of a car park.
"(She) was a girl from my high school," Rafaely said. "...It was weird seeing that on paper because I (used to) see her in the halls."
Talking about the problem
Veronica Harrison is the crisis coordinator for Community Counseling Services in the Golden Triangle, where she mans the organization's crisis hotline. Last month, her hotline received 87 calls, 56 of which were from people in immediate crises, she said.
Harrison says the best thing to do to prevent friends and family members from committing suicide is listen to them and pay attention to what they're going through -- especially if they've recently gone through a life-altering event such like the death of a loved one, losing a job or a divorce.
"Talking is one of the best prevention methods for suicide," she said. "Because often people don't feel like anyone understands or anyone cares. Most people just want to be heard."
That's the reason MUW's Counseling Center is holding the prevention week, which will include training for faculty and staff on the warning signs that a student may be suicidal -- signs that include slipping grades, the student no longer showing up for class or taking less care in their hygiene or appearance and other drastic behavioral changes.
It's a method that works, Shaw said. They've had professors walk students to the Counseling Center when they think the students need someone to talk to or a mental health professional to refer them to counseling or even medical treatment.
"We know they're aware and willing to be helpful to their students," she said.
A taboo word
Because of the stigma associated with suicide -- and with mental health issues in general -- it's a topic Shaw feels people don't discuss enough, especially with regards to their own feelings.
MUW counselor Deb Wells thinks suicide is just too scary a topic for people to feel comfortable talking about it.
"You don't want to believe that somebody would be willing or even able to do it," she said.
But that's a problem for people already feeling suicidal. The stigma attached to suicide means suicide victims may not tell someone how they're feeling. That emotional isolation can make them feel more alone and hopeless, compounding the problem.
"People need to feel comfortable to say, 'I need help'," said Katrina Sunivelle, director of Contact Helpline.
Sunivelle oversees volunteers who man a crisis hotline which people feeling suicidal or who are having some other crisis can call. The volunteers who take the calls can offer resources and advice, but mostly, Sunivelle said, they're there just to listen.
"(We're saying), 'It's okay to be where you are. Let us work on a plan to assist you live the life you were born to live'," she said.
Like MUW's Counseling Center, Contact Helpline is preparing events to raise awareness of suicide and prevention efforts for Suicide Prevention Week. The organization will host a balloon release in memory of suicide victims on Tuesday at First Assembly of God Church at 6 p.m. and will spend the rest of the week remembering victims and promoting prevention methods on social media.
They will end the week with a 5K, 10K and memorial walk in memory of Christopher Reeves, a teenager from New Hope who committed suicide in 2015, Sunivelle said.
She hopes the memorial walk will encourage people who feel the same way Reeves did to reach out to a loved one and try and get help.
"We want them to know if you're that same person in those shoes, you don't have to follow them," she said.