In a talk about suicide prevention and intervention, it would have been easy for the dialogue to overlook the hope and help that exists for those struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues.
But the focus of Monday night’s 6 O’Clock Series talk on suicide prevention at Indiana University of Pennsylvania returned again and again to the possibility of understanding and preventing one of the most common causes of death in this country.
[PHOTO: Members of a panel addressing the topic of suicide at a Six O’Clock Series presentation Monday were, from left, Jerry Overman, Indiana County coroner; Craig Faish, of The Open Door crisis hotline; Peter Kozel, IUP Counseling Center; and Steve and Cindy Vrana, of the Indiana County Suicide Task Force. Cindy’s daughter, Desa Bane, committed suicide at age 15 in October of 2012. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)]
Six panelists, including members of the Suicide Task Force of Indiana County and a representative of the IUP Counseling Center, led a dialogue with students and addressed comments and questions from the students who filled the Hadley Union Building’s Ohio Room.
One of the first steps to addressing the issue is dispelling the many myths that surround suicide, which is the 10th-leading cause of death in the country and the third-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds.
Dr. Ralph May, chief clinical psychologist at the Community Guidance Center and the co-chairman of the Suicide Task Force of Indiana County, opened with a reminder that depression or thoughts of suicide do not necessarily lead to death.
“Suicide is a 100 percent preventable death,” he said. “It’s not an illness that has to end in death.”
Adequate treatment and support is vital when it comes to preventing suicide, and it could have prevented the actions that took the lives of 68 people in Indiana County in the last five years.
“We know that those people could have been saved if something had been done. But almost none were receiving treatment.”
He said that people experiencing depression, thoughts of suicide or other risk factors associated with suicide may not seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.
“They believe that they should be able to tough it out, and if they show their feelings, they’re weak,” May said. “There are people afraid to reach out, so we have to reach them. That’s why this is so important. It’s a public health crisis.”
Another common misconception about suicide is that bringing it up with someone who may be suicidal will increase the likelihood that they will act on the idea.
“The most important thing is communication because what these people need is someone who cares,” said Craig Faish, crisis hotline coordinator for The Open Door. “Nobody’s going to say, ‘I’ve never thought of (suicide.) That’s a great idea.’”
But even in cases in which victims have support and access to mental health treatment, suicide can still occur. Cindy Vrana, who lost her 15-year-old daughter, Desa Bane, to suicide in October 2012, said she had become “very good at recognizing the signs” that her daughter was at risk of suicide and had been helping her through treatment for some time. Vrana and her husband, Steve, both served on the panel Monday night.
“She was in the system. She was hospitalized four previous times,” Cindy said. “It surprised her doctors and therapists.”
Though they will feel guilt and sorrow for the rest of their lives, Cindy acknowledged that she and Steve have to continue on for their other children, finding hope in the fact that they may help one person after reaching out to thousands in the county.
“You just learn that there’s a lot of good,” Cindy said.
“It, in no uncertain terms, sucks,” Steve added. “Day in and day out. But we’ve found strength in the fact that if it takes us talking to 1,000 people to help one, it’s worth it. And we’ve talked to thousands of people.”
May and Faish also addressed the many sources of help in the county, including The Open Door, the Community Guidance Center and the 211 helpline established last year to connect Indiana County residents to information about non-emergency social service matters.
“I find it offensive that we are not handling these concerns like medical concerns,” May said. “In this country, a third of the 26.2 million people with a diagnosable condition receive treatment and (there is) a 12 percent chance you’re getting adequate treatment. But there’s a flow of available help.”
These county services do help a number of residents. The Open Door crisis number made 541 contacts in January, and 70 calls came in to the Community Guidance Center, May said. Although not every caller experiences suicidal thoughts, addressing mental health issues before they grow into major concerns is one of the keys to prevention.
Student attendees asked the panelists about some of these issues that pertain to young people, including bullying, challenges related to sexual identification, self-mutilation and the increased risk of suicidal thoughts associated with antidepressants.
No “magic pairing” of medications will immediately fix mental health disorders because of the complexity and unique chemistry of each individual, May said. But it’s important to erase the “artificial dichotomy” between the physical and biological so that those suffering from mental health issues will see them as medical issues, not personality flaws.
The panelists also noted that bullying, cutting and other behaviors associated with depression and suicide do not necessarily lead to suicide, but they can indicate that someone is suffering enough to be considering it.
The Suicide Task Force of Indiana County was founded 28 years ago in response to suicides in the county and was revitalized about a year ago when suicide rates spiked in the county. The group became “much more community-oriented in terms of prevention,” May said.
“It had been primarily a reactive organization, dealing with suicides and looking for patterns. Now we’re looking at prevention and intervention and postvention.”
In the year following the unusually high number of suicides among young people, the county saw a decrease in the number of victims. In 2013, 10 people committed suicide in the county, according to Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman Jr.; a total of 13 had been reported in 2012.
The number of people who commit suicide in the county could be higher than statistics indicate because some victims die in Allegheny County or Cambria County hospitals after they fatally wound themselves at home in Indiana County, he said.
The coroner’s statistics could also fail to reflect deaths that “look like something else” but are indeed suicide, May said. In some cases, it’s difficult to decide whether a car accident or overdose was an accident or intentionally lethal.
The numbers vary from year to year, but Overman said that greater awareness of the risk factors and prevention methods could have contributed to the drop-off from 2012.