Families who lost loved ones to suicide stress prevention, awareness efforts

BY TAMMIE SMITH Richmond Times-Dispatch | Posted: Saturday, August 30, 2014 10:30 pm

Ren Bell said her sister, Lindsay Pollack, struggled for years with depression, but Bell said she never really understood the depth of her sister’s pain or how long she had dealt with it.

Her sister killed herself in 2006. At the memorial service, Bell talked to some of her sister’s friends from middle school. Bell heard for the first time that her sister had talked back then, barely into adolescence, about being depressed.

“That is why my big focus is awareness in the schools,” Bell said. “I feel like maybe if she had gotten help earlier on, if her friends had gone to an adult and said, ‘Hey, she is having these really serious thoughts and issues.’ … Kids tend to talk to each other and not to their parents about serious things.

“I just feel like if she had earlier intervention, if she had gotten some therapy earlier on — that she was having these thoughts — that maybe she’d still be here today. Maybe it wouldn’t have gone down such a dark road, with drugs and alcohol and everything.”

The highly publicized death this month of actor and comedian Robin Williams has focused attention on mental illness and suicide prevention. Williams was public about his battles with depression and substance abuse, but his suicide still shocked his family, friends and fans.But people who have lost loved ones to suicide know how insidious depression can be, how those suffering often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and how difficult it is to fathom that a loved one may be in such pain that they want to die.

“I think Robin Williams’ death does bring suicide prevention into the spotlight, and it’s beneficial in the sense that it warrants a conversation,” Bell said.

“It may be shocking, but at the same time he was very public with his depression and addiction issues. Unfortunately, those issues never truly go away. People can ‘manage’ their depression with medication, therapy, exercise, etc., but there is no cure for many who suffer from severe depression.”
Lindsay Pollack died April 14, 2006. She was 26 and loved by an extended family. But she had made suicide attempts before. She had started drinking a lot. She had been in treatment. It was at an outpatient treatment program that she met a man who, like her, was struggling. They became friends.
“They committed suicide together,” Bell said.

Bell said she is telling her sister’s story, sharing her and her family’s pain, in hopes that people learn from their experience and perhaps know what to look for and how to act if someone they are close to is dealing with mental health issues and having thoughts of self-harm.

“I kind of feel like if she hadn’t been with someone else it wouldn’t have been completed. But he was on a mission, too. Men tend to have a higher rate of completion with suicide. Women tend to have more attempts. … It’s a cry out for help usually.”

In Virginia, suicide takes the lives of about 1,000 people every year — about three times more than the number who die from homicide and also more than the number who die in motor vehicle crashes.

“People don’t kill themselves because they want to die. People kill themselves because they are in unbearable pain,” Dr. Gerard Lawson, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, said at a suicide prevention planning meeting this month in Henrico County.
About 100 people attended the meeting, which was funded with a suicide prevention grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Both DBHDS and the Virginia Department of Health have divisions that focus on suicide prevention.
The state health department’s prevention efforts primarily target those ages 10 to 24, said Anya Shaffer, suicide prevention program coordinator at the state health department. Those efforts are funded by a federal grant, with the most recent award averaging $480,000 a year over five years. Programs focus on training people who are in contact with children to recognize signs and on prevention on college campuses.
DBHDS is the lead agency for suicide prevention across the lifespan. Gail Taylor, director of behavioral health wellness, said the department’s budget includes $600,000 a year for suicide prevention and $500,000 for mental health first-aid training, funds appropriated by the General Assembly. High-profile tragedies, such as the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, have been the impetus for funding.
“There are some risk factors; if we had caught them early and people had gotten help, tragedies could have been prevented,” Taylor said.
There are five regional community services board partnerships across the state, and each region has been given $150,000 to develop a regional suicide prevention plan, Taylor said. The central region, which includes Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and other jurisdictions, used the money to hold the planning summit Lawson facilitated.
What’s needed, Lawson said, are tools and techniques to help people get through those periods of severe pain.
“What we need are opportunities when they are in the midst of that to be able to say, ‘Suicide is an option, and I won’t take that away from you, but let’s make that the second, or third or fourth thing that we think about. Let’s start with these other options first.’
“Medication by itself is effective, but for most of the medications that we are talking about, it takes four weeks to get to therapeutic levels. Therapy helps sooner than that. The research over and over again shows that … the best thing is therapy and medication together. People find relief more quickly. They recover more quickly, and it’s usually more enduring,” Lawson said.
“My story is that I lost my brother.”
It’s been two years and seven months since Shannon G. Weisleder lost her only brother, Matthew P. Geary, to suicide.
Geary, 41, was a prominent attorney who was described by one public official as a “friend to everybody.”
Two months before his death, he had lost a contested race for a Henrico public office. During the high-profile campaign, some personal things were revealed that depicted him in a less-than-flattering light.
“Looking back, we kind of say his death was sort of the perfect storm. He had a lot going on with his family and with his health,” Weisleder said.
“I really felt after he ended his life his story was not going to end there. I felt that what happened to my brother could be something positive. If my brother’s death had not been so public, I don’t know if I would have had the impetus to advocate.”
Bell and Weisleder are among a core group of local people working to establish a Virginia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a national organization that focuses on raising awareness of suicide prevention and funding suicide prevention research. The organization sponsors Out of the Darkness community fundraising walks. The Richmond-area walk is scheduled for Sept. 13 at Deep Run Park in Henrico.
Since her brother’s death, Weisleder has come to know the statistics well. One that stands out is that men in her brother’s age range are one of the groups at highest risk of suicide.
Geary shot himself. Weisleder writes about it in “Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God,” a collection of writings by women about going through transitions in life.
Weisleder’s essay is titled “Finding Me.”
She describes the morning of her brother’s death. She and her mother were helping him move. Weisleder’s mother called her when she couldn’t reach him by phone. Weisleder brushed off her worry but told her husband to take some items over there. Later, panic set in when her husband was not answering his phone.
“I cannot even explain the feeling of the world coming out from under my feet,” Weisleder writes in the essay.
“My mother found him. My husband was right behind her. She pushed everyone out of the way and locked herself in the house with him and held his hand until the police arrived.”
TryToMatter.com is a website named for her brother.
“My sisters, my parents and I decided that we wanted something positive to come out of his very tragic and unexpected death. Matter is a play on my brother’s name, Matt. The idea behind Try To Matter is, matter to yourself, matter to other people and matter in the world. The mission is to educate people on mental illness, suicide prevention and awareness,” Weisleder said.
“Mental illness is a chronic brain disease. It’s not a character flaw. …One of the ways we try to matter is supporting organizations that have been doing this (prevention and awareness work) for a long time.”
The loss is more recent for Alberta and Nathaniel Smith, so the pain is much more raw.
Their son Djuane Nathaniel Smith was 31 when he killed himself last September.
The Smiths, who live in Henrico, were out of town, visiting their daughter in Maryland when they got a call to come home.
Alberta Smith knew something was terribly wrong because the message was to come home, not to go to a hospital.
He was the last of their three children to leave the family nest. He was an electrician.
“I didn’t see him every day, but I miss him every day,” Nathaniel Smith said.
His son, he said, was his best friend. Not long before he died, they had gone fishing together, something they did a lot. He said his son seemed his usual self.
Alberta Smith said Djuane was the wisest of their three children. “He had an old soul,” she said, contemplative and serious but also a devoted father and uncle, and he loved to have fun.
“I never thought I would be faced with this; this is totally … sitting here now, it’s like …” She does not finish the sentence.
The family does not share the details of how Djuane died.
Suicide prevention advocates discourage reporting details of suicide because it might spur imitation or push those teetering on the edge of despair into action. Advocates also think it sensationalizes suicide.
Michelle Wood said it was not mental illness that drove her younger brother Djuane to kill himself. A month before, the family had vacationed together.
“He was having difficulty with other things in his life, which were stressors to him,” Wood said.
“The funny thing about it is my brother had just gone to a doctor’s visit. This is why I am so passionate about standardizing screening and making sure that we have some type of mental health questioning … that everyone is asked when they see a doctor. I just feel like if this had been done, it may have triggered a red flag because it would have conveyed what he was feeling at the time,” Wood said.
Djuane Smith’s family and friends are participating in the Out of the Darkness walk in his memory and to help others.
“I just wish … we could have done something to not even be in this situation,” Wood said.
Suicide, she said, is “one of those things that doesn’t have to happen. That is why I am so passionate about helping to make sure that we save lives.”

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