Stepping out to raise awareness of this silent epidemic
No one thinks that it will happen to one of their loved ones. Yet, death by suicide claimed the lives of more than 47,000 people in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That makes it one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Three local non-profits are working hard to educate the public about the realities of this public health emergency. Sharing Kindness is once again partnering with The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands and the Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition to hold their annual Cape and Islands Suicide Awareness Walk in Orleans on May 18.
The word “awareness” is the key.
“Many of us refer to suicide as the silent epidemic because the stigma means that people just don’t talk about it,” said Kim Mead-Walters, MD. “But it is so important to talk about it.”
Dr. Mead-Walters is working to end the silence and smash the stigma around suicide. She and a group of volunteers started Sharing Kindness after her son, Jeremy, died by suicide at the age of 16 in October of 2016. After Jeremy died, she learned that suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 18.
In the past year, Sharing Kindness has grown significantly. It now has about 40 volunteers who are dedicated to ensure that no other families suffer the loss from death by suicide.
“We have a two-pillar approach to our work,” Dr. Mead-Walters said. “The first pillar is around suicide awareness, particularly in youth. We have contacted and been in most schools on the Cape and Islands to start the conversation around suicide awareness. We’ve offered evidence-based, best-practice programming for educators and students.”
The second pillar is for survivors of suicide loss. This winter they offered a pilot program for young adults who have lost a loved one to suicide. The program was done in partnership with The Samaritans and Calmer Choice. The Samaritans provided a licensed mental health clinician to provide support for the first hour of the program where the participants could talk about their grief. Then Calmer Choice taught mindfulness techniques for the last half hour.
“The program was super successful,” Dr. Mead-Walters said. “You open up that wound and then at the same time you’re developing skills to help you cope with your grief. Everyone was so excited about it and we want to offer it to different age groups that are grieving.”
A Partnership that Helps Everyone
Lisa Forhan, who is the director of risk management for the Cape and Islands Department of Mental Health and a member of the steering committee for Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition and Stephanie Kelly, the executive director of The Samaritans, are pleased with the partnership with Sharing Kindness.
“You can’t have too many people doing this work,” Forhan said. “I think that we complement each other’s efforts nicely. For example, the Samaritans do survivor groups and they have the hotline number for people who might be at risk. At the Suicide Prevention Coalition, we’re really able to provide direct training for groups and organizations. There is one training in particular that we are trying to get out to everyone in the world if we can. It is called QPR. It refers to Question, Persuade, Refer. It is recognized as the best practice in suicide prevention.”
Kelly agrees and is happy that Sharing Kindness meets a need for young people that The Samaritans have had trouble doing.
“We are like cogs in a machine because we each have our thing that we do and we can rely on the other two organizations to do the things that we don’t do or that we can’t do as well. I can’t say enough about it. It’s very, very powerful.”
Suicide is a complex issue that all three non-profit organizations stress is an illness, just the same way the flu is an illness. If people are sick with a cold or the flu, they don’t hesitate to go to the doctor. The same should be true of mental illness, depression and suicide, Forhan said. Part of the solution to end suicide or create the aspirational goal of Zero Suicide is for people to feel comfortable talking about suicide, if they are concerned about a friend, co-worker or loved one.
“If you boil Zero Suicide down to a real simple premise, it is that, if we all work together and there is a safety net approach around the person and more communication, then we can reduce the numbers,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to band together to provide a safety net for people.”
QPR training gives people the language to talk about suicide and actually ask the question out loud if they are concerned about someone. Asking a person if they are considering suicide does not cause a person who is suffering from pain, trauma or loss to actually take their own life. It is the first life-line to saving that life.
Recognizing the signs is another lifeline. If someone talks about life being meaningless or that they aren’t sure they can go on, it’s important to listen empathetically and be present for that person. The next step is to help that person get help. Encourage them to seek medical care or call The Samaritans at 800-893-9900 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.
The Samaritans also encourage calls if you are just feeling lonely or in despair. The signs at Cape Cod Canal bridges give people the idea that they should only call if they are contemplating suicide, but the group’s mission is to help people when they are struggling, so they don’t get worse.
How to Participate
The Cape and Islands Suicide Awareness Walk is a fundraiser for the three organizations, but it also serves a bigger purpose to give those touched by suicide comfort and a voice so they don’t feel alone in their grief. Anyone who would like to participate can register online or in person at the walk on May 18. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. at the fields across from Eldredge Park at the Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans.
At 10 a.m., there will be a welcoming ceremony before the walk. The walk is about three miles long and is mostly on flat sidewalks. There will be a motorcycle police escort for safety. Afterwards, all participants are invited to attend a free barbeque at the school.
“Last year we had tons of little ones in strollers and I think our oldest walker was 85,” Dr. Mead- Walters said. “It was so heart-warming and wonderful. It’s a safe place to talk about suicide.”