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At Keene suicide-awareness vigil, a call for mental-health services

Keene Sentinel - 9/11/2018

Sept. 11--Since her son, Corey, died in 2011, Sandy Lang has been thinking about him. But it was on Monday night at the suicide-awareness vigil in downtown Keene that she shared his memory with strangers.

"This is my son, Corey," the Hinsdale resident told a group of 10 or so who had huddled under the gazebo in Central Square. She held the framed photo -- a young man in a dark jacket, smiling widely -- but then put it back with photos of other loved ones people had brought to the gathering. "He was a lot of things. He was a good son. He was a wonderful big brother. He was an adventurer."

He was quiet, soft-spoken and sweet -- and he never said a bad word about anyone, she added.

Corey, who was 32 when he died, had schizophrenia, his mother said. At some point in his 20s, the disease made him believe he was in danger, and that someone, the police or another unnamed entity, was trying to hurt him and his family.

At first, she said, the change was small. He began switching jobs because he believed people at work were trying to make him look bad. Lang said she didn't think much about this behavior.

"Never thought (it was) mental illness," she said. "A parent never thinks mental illness."

Lang discussed her family's experience at the ninth annual suicide-awareness vigil, organized by The Samaritans of Keene, an agency that, among other services, runs a free hotline for people in crisis. The event, which coincided with World Suicide Prevention Day, has modest roots. At first, organizers chose to hold it indoors. In those initial years, the vigil attracted mostly people whose loved ones had died by suicide. But three years ago, according to Executive Director Carmen Trafton, The Samaritans decided to hold the vigil out in the open -- in Central Square -- both to combat the stigma associated with suicide and to raise awareness of its burden in the community.

Corey Lang found his fears too much to carry, his mom said. Though he had sought help and was hospitalized for seven weeks at the state hospital in Concord, his condition worsened, and he took his life in April 2011.

As Lang told the story to the small crowd, evening had settled on the square, and the rain intensified. A gust blew out the candle she was holding. She stared at it in silence, her words hanging in the wind, until another woman stepped forward and re-lit the flame.

"It's devastating. It's life-changing that you're never going to get (him) back," Lang said after the vigil. "I was saying to my husband and my psychologist, 'I feel like I'll never know what it's like to truly have happiness.' There's always going to be (the knowledge that) Corey's gone."

For Trafton, the vigil calls attention to a need in the community, one whose solution may seem simple, but can be difficult to achieve in practice. Mental illness is first and foremost a medical condition -- no different than brain injury or a broken limb, she said -- and it deserves concerted attention and recognition. Suicide is preventable if people feel comfortable enough to reach out for help and if there is an infrastructure in place to assist those who need it, she added.

In recent weeks, suicide, particularly among adolescents, has come into focus in the region with the deaths of two area teenagers, Trafton said. But the need has always been there, she added. The Samaritans' local hotline received 1,700 calls from people in crisis last year, she said in an interview in June. And the need for acute care beds in the community was further heightened by the closing of Cheshire Medical Center's mental health unit in 2016, she said before the vigil.

The problem extends throughout the state and nation. In June, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that suicide rates had risen in almost every state over the past 17 years. At nearly 50 percent, New Hampshire's rate increase stands at the top, second only to Vermont and North Dakota.

But, Trafton said there are also reasons for some optimism. She's noticed the stigma around mental illness has abated somewhat. Whereas once, churches would refuse to bury those who'd died by suicide, she noted, most religious organizations now recognize it as stemming from mental illness. Schools within the county are raising awareness among their students, she said, and some -- including in the Keene School District -- held events Monday to commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day.

After Lang finished her story, Tammy Grenier of Peterborough shared the memory of her daughter, Sheena, who was 27 at the time of her death in 2014. Sheena was a dancer, an artist and a writer, Grenier said, and she had a young son.

"She was super loving and one of the most non-judgmental people that I've ever known, and that's how I try to honor her every day is by never passing judgment," Grenier said after the vigil.

But Sheena struggled with anxiety and depression ever since she was a teenager, Grenier said. There were good days and bad.

"I just would like to see (mental illness) normalized, like diabetes or anything else," she said.

Noting today's primary elections, Trafton said she hopes people will elect leaders who will address the need for mental health infrastructure in the state.

"It really does matter, and (those who have mental illness) often don't have a voice," she said. "... We can be their voice, and we can help them be strong, and we can maybe save some more lives."

The Samaritans offer a local crisis hotline, at 357-5505, and a toll-free state hotline, at 1-866-457-2910.

Liora Engel-Smith can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or Follow her on Twitter @LEngelSmithKS.


(c)2018 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

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