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You're not alone: National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month observed in September

The Watauga Democrat - 9/22/2017

Regardless of age, gender, race or social status - mental illness is a topic that doesn't discriminate and can plague anyone.

As a way to show those silently or publicly suffering with mental illness that they are not alone in their fight, many Americans observe National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September.

"One of the problems is that there's an awful lot of stigma about getting help for mental health-type problems," said Murray Hawkinson, clinical site director at Daymark Recovery Services. "I think there's a lot of carryover from earlier times where people made fun of if they had psychiatric problems."

Daymark is a non profit organization that provides substance abuse and mental health services for Watauga County citizens. Hawkinson said those having suicidal thoughts or tendencies often feel socially isolated and hopeless. This may stem from a mental illness, sudden loss of someone/something, anxiety, stress, substance use, genetic predispositions, childhood trauma or other causes.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health, Injury Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit and the N.C. Injury and Violence Prevention agencies conducted a study in 2013 of state suicide incidents.

According to the study, the Centers for Disease Control found in 2010 that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and ranks among the top five leading causes of death for people ages 15 to 54 in North Carolina.

Approximately one in five adults in the U.S.-43.8 million, or 18.5 percent -experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Among residents of N.C., there were a total of 3,536 suicides (14.3 per 100,000 residents) and 19,754 self-inflicted injury hospitalizations (79.9 per 100,000) from 2009 to 2011, according to the study. There also was a total of 38,605 self-inflicted injury emergency department visits (111.9 per 100,000) during the four-year period from 2009 to 2012, according to the study.

According to the report, there were 214 self-inflicted injury emergency department visits for ages 10 or older in Watauga County during 2009 to 2012.

So far in 2017, Boone Police have responded to five attempted or fatal suicides, according to BPD Sgt. Shane Robbins. They have also responded to 35 mental health emergencies with no attempted suicide.

Still experiencing the heartache from the loss of a friend to suicide is Doug Middleton - former Appalachian State University football player and current safety for the New York Jets. Middleton said his childhood friend A.J. Morrison killed himself at the age of 24 after struggling with mental illness for more than three years.

Middleton said he and Morrison grew up a couple of houses down from each other in Winston-Salem from the time they were 6 years old. The last time Middleton talked to Morrison was the day before his death in July, where he said he had no idea that was his friend's next step.

"In the African American community, mental illnesses aren't taken for what they should," Middleton said. "People don't get the correct help. A lot of times in our community, you're told to just pray about it, which helps, but it's not the only answer."

After Morrison's death, Middleton said the community didn't quite understand why Morrison made that choice. It was then when Middleton felt the need to help raise awareness of the severity of mental illness. Middleton said he wants anyone dealing with mental illness or suicidal thoughts to know that they are not alone and there is hope.

"It's an issue that should have a lot more awareness than it does," Middleton said. "The fact that I couldn't provide the help that was needed for my best friend ... I just hope I can do everything I can to keep his name alive and try to get other people help."

Middleton plans to start working alongside the the High Country chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness to work towards breaking the stigma towards mental illness. NAMI is a grassroots effort organization dedicated to advocating for and educating the public on mental health, according to its website.

The High Country NAMI provides educational programs on mental illness as well as provides support groups - such as its support group for families who have someone with a mental illness, according to the HCNAMI Treasurer Mike Tanner.

HCNAMI has monthly meetings at the Watauga County Public Library conference room, located at 140 Queen St. in Boone. The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 2 where Hawkinson will have a presentation on suicide awareness.

Signs to look for in people who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, according to Hawkinson, might be the person withdrawing, pulling back from friends, being apathetic towards activities or giving away valued possessions.

While mental illness and suicidal thoughts may not always require hospitalization or medication, it will always require attention, Hawkinson said.

"If people say they're suicidal, the myth that's perpetrated is that they don't really mean it," Hawkinson said. "The truth is, the people that say they're suicidal need to have that taken seriously. We can't afford to assume that the person doesn't mean it. We can actually help by treating any threat that's made to carry through with a suicidal action seriously."

Telling someone with thoughts of suicide that their situation could be worse or that they don't have anything to be upset about isn't the correct reaction someone should have, Hawkinson said. When someone opens up about having suicidal thoughts, he said to show interest and to ask what could help.

"When people feel depressed, having it invalidated by somebody else isn't helpful," Hawkinson said. "We may wish the person isn't depressed. We may wish that they're just having a tough time. We say that more for ourselves than for the person that we're saying it to. It tends to make people feel like they should just shut up and like other folks aren't wanting to hear that they are having a hard time."

Daymark provides several services for those experiencing thoughts of suicide.

One of the services the organization provides is a mobile engagement team. Hawkinson said this team provides crisis services, assessments and screenings for people who are having a crisis or some kind of acute situation where they feel distressed and are needing assistance. The team is able to meet the person wherever they are in the community and is of no cost to the person needing help.

Daymark also provides services over the phone. Hawkinson said some people in a crisis or uneasy state can get what they need just by talking with staff over the phone. For those needing group help, therapy sessions are available for ages 4 and above. They also provide enhanced services such as substance abuse treatment.

To help those struggling with mental health, Hawkinson said the key is to try to learn how to cope with tough situations. One of the best ways to do this, he said, is by finding meaning in the things in a person's life. He suggested getting involved with sports, volunteer work, political actions, gardening and adopting or fostering a pet.

"The more we find meaning in life, the less we're left with the occupation that can occur in feeling stuck with an awful event in life," Hawkinson said.

For groups or individuals seeking to be more aware of suicidal signs, VAYA Health provides training in suicide prevention.

Crisis Intervention Team Training Coordinator Melissa Ledbetter trains first responders, law enforcement, EMS and other groups in VAYA's 23-county area on deescalation skills in working with individuals with mental health, substance use and developmental disabilities. She is also a certified trainer in Question Persuade Refer suicide prevention.

QPR is a program is a one- to two-hour training to help community members know what to do to help prevent someone from completing suicide. The program is based on asking the right questions to someone who is showing signs or symptoms that they may be struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, persuading them to get treatment and then referring them to resources to agencies that can provide treatment.

Participants in the training may be asked to role-play situations to get practice on how to talk to someone about suicide and what to do if the situation ever occurs.

Boone Police receive this training to learn how to respond to someone suffering from a mental health crisis. The training emphasizes taking individuals to treatment rather than to jail, when it can be accomplished with little risk to public safety, according to Robbins.

"CIT programs also emphasize that law enforcement and mental health systems work collaboratively to develop a network of services to support people in crisis," Robbins said. "While this training doesn't guarantee a successful resolution when dealing with a person in crisis, it does place valuable resources in the officer's toolkit to help these people."

Training is free and is open to groups or individuals. To learn more about Vaya community trainings, contact Ledbetter at (800) 893-6246, ext. 3320, or at


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