Out of the Darkness
The steady torrents of rain did little to dampen the upbeat vibe generated among the more than 140 walkers who gathered at Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to march alongside suicide survivors, friends and family at nonprofit Suicide Prevention International (SPI)’s 5-K “Walk for Life” on May 8.
Various organizations gathered inside a rotunda, sharing their stories. Music echoed throughout the park. Everyone had his or her own personal reason to be there. Some walked as a show of support for friends and loved ones who were suffering from depression and contemplating suicide. Some participated because they’d lost a loved one. Still others marched as a show of defiance to their own demons—to show it can be done.
Tonya Benitez, 20, from Queens, also walking through the rain, told the Press that she had contemplated suicide but had found strength after reading Tworkowski’s “To Write Love on Her Arms” story. The group’s message touched her so deeply that she took it quite literally—pulling up her sleeve to reveal the word “LOVE” tattooed in thick black letters.
“I got it on the left side because my heart is on the left side,” she smiled.
Unfortunately for health professionals and counselors trying to combat suicide, the pain isn’t always as obvious as being written on the sufferer’s arms. It takes people opening up. And this can be easier said than done, experts say.
“Many people won’t tell you that they’re suicidal, but they will tell you—or you can see from their behavior—that they are feeling these emotions,” explains SPI Founder and CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Herbert Hendin, Ph.D.
“Suicidal people can be good at tricking you into thinking that there’s nothing wrong,” explains Madelyn S. Gould, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute. “That’s why some of the other strategies that we’re trying to implement, is really teaching kids what to do when a friend tells you that and the main thing to do is share that information with a trusted adult.”
Because as the statistics show, suicide affects every age group.
“Every once in a while you’ll get an 8-year-old who [gets] into an argument and hangs himself,” says Gould.
Camhi, AFSP’s regional director, believes education is the key to suicide prevention. She’s made this her life’s mission, teaching awareness within schools and colleges across Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York City through speaking engagements, an annual march, educational DVDs and other resources.
Depression and suicide is an “international health crisis” that must be addressed, she says. One way, she suggests, is beginning suicide prevention education as early as middle school and by “normalizing the discussion.”
She likens it to the stigma surrounding talking about cancer, or even AIDS, years ago.
“Just as we talk about cancer—20 years ago you didn’t say cancer, you said ‘the C word’—it was in a whisper, nobody wanted to talk about [it],” says Camhi. “We didn’t talk about AIDS, it was hush-hush, and if somebody got AIDS, oh, that was the death sentence. Well, now 20, 30 years later, we’ve normalized the discussion about it.
“We talk about safe sex, we talk about drugs and alcohol, we even sometimes talk about time management, how to manage stress,” she continues. “But we don’t talk about mental health.”
It’s this open dialogue generated by speaking engagements—such as Priest and Camhi’s classroom tours—that foster meaningful communication about mental health and suicide that has the capability to save lives, they stress.
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy—or several—to spark such discussions inside school walls.
“The schools are not the ones that have to come up with all the solutions, of course—it starts at home—but schools need to take the blinders off and the stigma away to make it discussed, and let people know that suicide is part of depression and mental illness,” explains Ellen Twible, whose 16-year-old son Jeremy, a junior at Commack High School, died by suicide last July.
The school hosted a suicide forum in March following five such deaths within the community in a year. It recently implemented two-part suicide/depression workshops for freshmen, which started last week, according to the high school’s psychologist.
For Priest, raising awareness has been cathartic: “[Speaking] wound up being a form of therapy for me. If I’m talking to 20 kids and I only reach one, that’s enough for me.”
She’s experienced this firsthand, she tells the Press, explaining how some children have waited till the end of her presentation, after their classmates have left, to open up.
“I’m listening to you, so tell me what you want to say, because I’m not going to judge you,” she tells her audiences. “And I think the biggest thing is the judgment factor. As long as they feel they’re not being judged, the kids open up a lot.
“But people are so stigmatized and bent out of shape by—so fearful—of not sharing, whereas if we sat down and people noticed, ‘Whoa, look at that, almost every hand in this room is up. I’m not the only square peg trying to fit in a round hole here,’” adds Camhi.
And it’s not so much that people who attempt suicide necessarily want to die, she explains.
“They’re pretty ambivalent, actually, about living or dying,” she says. “[They just want] to end the terrible emotional pain.”
Priest has faced that pain and darkness and emerged on the other side—while discovering her purpose through helping children and adults conquer their internal demons with education and communication. Letting them know that there are so many other souls who feel the same way makes all the difference in the world.
“Getting help is OK,” Priest stresses. “There’s nothing wrong with [you]. It’s not a flaw to be depressed. It’s not a personality defect. It is a medical condition, just like diabetes, just like cancer. There is help and it can be treated.
“[You’re] not alone,” she continues. “[You] may feel alone, but [you] aren’t. Somebody out there cares… Hold on. It can be a wild ride, but hold on.”