Phyllis McLaughlin
Phyllis McLaughlin
On a Thursday in June, I received an email that a meeting I’d planned to attend the next morning had been cancelled.

Later that day I learned the reason.

The meeting was for a committee of the Healthy Communities Initiative, a coalition sponsored by King’s Daughters’ Health to address identified health-related needs in Jefferson County.

The committee that was planning to meet, specifically, is tasked with working to reduce the high rate of suicides in the Madison area.

The meeting was cancelled because one of its members had died that morning.

The cause: Suicide.

I didn’t know the person, personally, but my reaction to the news, however, was profoundly – and unexpectedly – personal.

My only thought that day was this: Here was a man who knew about the resources available to help him through his pain. He was surrounded at work and in the community by people he knew he could talk to, who would have done anything to help him. He had a family that loves him. By all accounts, he loved his job.

If a person with all of these resources – surrounded by people who could have recognized the signs but saw none – could choose to end his life, what could the community possibly do to help others who may be contemplating the same thing?

It shook me to the core.

So, I decided that I had to write about it. Editor Elliot Tompkin and I worked out a plan of action that would culminate with this weeklong series examining the issue and trying to find out how it affects families, friends and the entire community, including people who deal with death on a daily basis – law enforcement and the county coroner.

The counselors I’ve interviewed agree that the best way to prevent suicide is to talk about it – from awareness and tools for preventing someone from taking their own life, to the mental health issues that can lead to lethal choices, as well as the aftermath for those left behind.

“The word ‘suicide’ scares many people, especially adults,” said Carri Dirksen, who is coordinator of the Healthy Communities Initiative of Jefferson County. “We need to focus on removing the stigma from the word and from having depression or other mental health issues. … Nearly every person in our county has a face that comes to mind when they hear the word suicide.”

One of Dirksen’s primary objectives is to establish a Zero Suicide Initiative, and that committee is working on other solutions to roll back those numbers.

While working on this series, I have found that people whose lives have been affected by suicide and mental health issues want to talk and tell their stories. They want their loved ones to be remembered. They want to honor those memories by helping others and bringing awareness to the community.

I have spoken with three women who lost their young-adult children to suicide. For two there were signs, and their families had tried everything they could do to help. For the other, there were no signs, and the family was left with far more questions than answers.

All three are experiencing unfathomable grief, and their losses are heart-breaking.

I interviewed a young woman who has attempted suicide and is struggling every day to push through the sadness that seems inescapable. She is a lovely person and my thoughts will always be with her. I hope to remain friends with her.

I’ve talked to counselors who have lost clients or others to suicide. Again, sometimes the warning signs were there and sometimes they weren’t.

I’ve talked with first-responders – sheriff’s deputies and the county coroner – who are frustrated by the fact that, in so many suicides in recent months, the flood of illegal drugs like methamphetamine and heroin is clearly a contributing factor. 

I quickly realized that I couldn’t write about suicide without writing about substance abuse. That is not to say that every person who chooses suicide is using drugs; rather, the point is so many people using drugs are dying either by choice or by accident. And sometimes it’s impossible to know which.

But both of these issues are monumental just by themselves.

What is a community to do?

What are parents to do?

What are people who are suffering to do?

The answers are not clear, but to me, getting the conversation started – and keeping it going – is the first step. 

The stress we have built into our daily lives is probably one of the biggest contributors, according to the counselors I interviewed. People are always busy, always doing something. They are working long hours, shuttling their kids to extracurricular activities and relying on technology to the point where I have seen families sitting at dinner in a restaurant, each person staring at a device or cell phone, instead of just talking to each other.

Our mission, as a newspaper, is to give our community the information it needs. We are including with each installment phone numbers, websites and other ways to reach out for help – either for yourself, a loved one, a friend or even a co-worker. We have included insight into how to recognize the signs, if they are there, and what to do if you see them.

What you can do, as a member of this community, is get involved in the Healthy Communities Initiative and any other group or organization working to bring awareness of suicide and substance abuse. The more people who get involved, the more work that can be done and the faster change will come.

Clearly, the best thing we can do is talk … Just talk. Ask people how they are doing and hear what they are saying. The time to keep the subject of suicide – or addiction – out of polite conversation has come to an end. 

And we need compassion. People who abuse drugs don’t usually start out hoping to become addicts. Usually they are in pain – whether it’s physical or emotional –  and they are looking for ways to make that pain go away. Assuming that they are all bad people – or not worth our time – because they are struggling with addiction is not helpful. And any one of us can fall into that trap. 

I’ve learned that people will talk if they know others will listen without judging them. 

This has been probably one of the most challenging projects I’ve done as a journalist. It’s a very difficult and dark subject. 

But I have to believe that telling these stories – and getting the conversation started – will help someone.