BY DEBBIE PAGE
Under crystal blue skies on Saturday, 2023 Out of the Darkness Central Piedmont Walk Chair Susan Tolle described the event as an opportunity for connection, understanding, healing and hope.
“Together we are strong,” Tolle said. “By showing up today, you let others know they are not alone.”
The local American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) event raises funds to spread education and suicide prevention efforts throughout the community. This year the organization surpassed its $50,000 goal by raising an estimated $80,000 with the generous support of sponsors and walkers.
The local AFSP chapter has trained thousands to recognize suicidal behaviors and get the person help. Teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, corporations, and church and PTA groups have participated in the training.
The group also started a firearms safety and safe storage group in Iredell County after winning a grant for the initiative. Another grant funds the Iredell County Suicide Prevention working group, which is led by Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins.
The group has resources to train people of any age and has groups to support suicide survivors. and families. Tolle said the new suicide prevention hotline, 988, had 5 million calls in its first year.
“This is real and lasting change, and it’s all thanks to you,” said Tolle.
Tolle said almost 50,000 lives were lost to suicide ideation in 2022, “a higher number than we’ve ever had.”
An emotional Tolle also thanked her daughter Emily, who had three suicide attempts, for saving many lives.
“Her courage and conviction helped her survive what could have been a terrible tragedy and led her to share her story in order to help others,” she said.
Others speakers included Statesville Mayor Costi Kutteh, Purple Heart Homes CEO John Gallina and Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Jeff James.
Piedmont Veterans Assistance Council board member Leon Ijames led the prayer, asking that God empower those present to become “an army You will use to fight against the enemy called suicide.”
He prayed that all have a “willingness to be a friend, and not a judge, but a ray of hope in someone’s dark hour of depression and hurt.”
Ijames reminded listeners to have the courage to speak openly about suicide, in a spirit of power and love. When the call comes to help, “we must say, ‘Send me.’”
As a visual representation of how suicide impacts the community, walkers wore color beads representing how they were affected by suicide. White beads represent the loss of a child to suicide, purple represents the loss of a relative or friend, red represents the loss of a spouse or partner, and gold represents the loss of a parent.
Orange beads mean the wearer lost a sibling to suicide, while green beads represent a personal struggle with suicide attempts or mental illness. Blue beads are worn by advocates of suicide prevention, while silver remembers a first responder or veteran lost to suicide.
Those wearing teal beads are supporting someone who struggles with suicidal ideation or has attempted, and rainbow beads honors LBGTQ community members who died by suicide.
During the honor bead ceremony, Tolle read the personal stories of several affected by suicide, including Jan, who lost her husband, her daughter Barrie who lost her father, and Gallina, who lost a soldier comrade.
Tolle also shared her story of the loss of a co-worker to suicide as well as the struggles of her daughter, Emily, who is now in recovery and pursuing a nursing career. Hollis, another attempt survivor, is thankful that she had no lasting physical damage and knows if depression comes, she must seek help immediately.
James wore blue beads to support suicide prevention and mourned the lost impacts these young people could have had if they had gotten help for their struggles. PFLAG member Maggie wore rainbow beads for LBGTQ community members and asked for increased acceptance to help alleviate the societal pressures they face.
After the Pledge of Allegiance, First Presbyterian Church choir director Hanna Lee sang “The Star Bangled Banner.”
During the two-mile walk around the Statesville High School Stadium track, participants were encouraged to make connections and share stories along the way.
COMMUNITY LEADERS SPEAK OUT
In an interview before the event, Mayor Kutteh said that families continue to be devastated by both suicide attempts and those who took their lives.
He said that the city’s police department is key to local suicide prevention by referring those with mental health issues to services and by advocating for safe firearm storage and disposal of unused medicines in drop boxes or at take back events.
These types of efforts help remove opportunity for self-harm by limiting access to lethal means.
James, who has provided suicide prevention training to all teachers and staff during his tenure, said in an interview that, “the loss of anyone to suicide is heart-wrenching to families and everyone involved.”
Negativity, especially on social media, is impacting students every day, he said.
“The mental health and stability of our students is at an all-time low,” he said. “Our staffs are passionate about kids, and it’s taken a toll when we lose kids. We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t love kids.”
James said 12 Iredell County students have taken their lives since 2015, so I-SS partners with AFSP events, holds mental health and suicide prevention forums, and provides mental health professionals to help students and their parents though students’ mental health struggles.
I-SS received a $17 million mental health grant to provide these services in the schools, with a mental health professional serving one or two schools to counsel students and assist parents.
With suicide the second leading cause of death for youths, James believes that young people need hope in the midst of the negativity that surrounds them.” He believes being back in school with staff trained in spotting mental health struggles has led to a slowing of suicide attempts.
“We sound the alarm and get mental health officials involved a lot quicker,” added James.
A few schools with a high number of referrals have a dedicated mental health professional, and the system plans to hire 12 new mental health folks to further expand assistance next year.
Gallina said in an interview that veterans’ high suicide rates result from their “struggles with the moral injuries of combat.” When they come home, returning service members often lack a support system and personal connectivity necessary for dealing with PTSD and mental health struggles.
Even more than therapy or medication, Gallina believes that they need to see that their lives have “purpose and value, that they are still capable and competent and that people still care.”
Gallina said his organization wants everyone in the community to know that “we see them, we care, and that they matter.”
Purple Heart Homes also sponsors the 12-week Reboot Combat Recovery for veterans experiencing PTSD. The idea expanded with Reboot groups at local churches for those in trauma recovery or who are first responders who see tragedy on a daily basis.
Losing community connectivity during the pandemic, lacking somebody to talk to and who cares, and the absence of a support network has increased mental health issues for many community members. Gallina said the Reboot programs help build that support system.
“Anything that we can do to help promote caring and loving on your neighbor, we are happy to be a part of,” added Gallina.
For more information on Reboot programs in Statesville and other nearby areas, visit https://rebootrecovery.com/ or contact Purple Heart Homes at https://purplehearthomesusa.org/.
Ijames, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, said in an interview that he still has PTSD from his war experiences. In his work as a board member of Piedmont Veterans Assistance Council, he encounters veterans with PTSD, so the organization helps connect them with counseling and assistance before suicide ideation emerges.
EFFECTS OF SUICIDE
The Centers for Disease Control reports that “suicide and suicide attempts cause serious emotional, physical, and economic impacts. People who attempt suicide and survive may experience serious injuries that can have long-term effects on their health. They may also experience depression and other mental health concerns.”
The health and well-being of surviving friends, loved ones, co-workers, and the community are also profoundly affected. After a suicide death, survivors may “experience prolonged grief, shock, anger, guilt, symptoms of depression or anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide themselves.”
The economic toll of suicide and nonfatal self-harm cost the nation over $500 billion in medical costs, work loss costs, value of statistical life, and quality of life costs in 2020.
Event sponsors include Ashley Cannon-Attorney at Law, Beth & Company, blueharbor bank, Cavin-Cook Funeral Home, Children’s Hope Alliance, Dennis Brown Painting, D’Laney’s, Dr. Jon Packman, Energy United, Every Age, Farm Bureau, Galaxy Arcade, GG’s Art Frames Gifts, Greenbriar Primary Care, Home Instead, Hospice of Iredell County, Hunkajunk Hauling, Integrity Security, Iredell Free News, Iredell Health System, Iredell-Statesville Schools, James Land & Cattle, Johnson’s Greenhouses, Kewaunee, Mannheim, McCombs Steel, Mooresville Graded School District, Mooresville FONDO, Moose Martin Haynes & Lundy, P.A., MSI Defense, Murphy’s Lawn Service, Piedmont HealthCare, Pinnacle Pressure Washing, PS West Construction, Purple Heart Homes, Randy Marion Automotive Group, Sawyer Insurance, Shred South, Statesville Country Club, Statesville Dance, Troutman Chair, Troutman Funeral Home, WAME, and World of Windows.
♦ National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Dial or text 988 (The Lifeline responds 24/7 to calls, chats or texts from anyone who needs support for suicidal, mental health, and/or substance use crisis, and connects those in need with trained crisis counselors.)
♦ AFSP: https://afsp.org/
♦ PARTNERS Behavioral Health Crisis Hotline: 1-833-353-2093 (24 hours)
BECOME AN ADVOCATE
♦ QPR Suicide Prevention Training: https://www.partnerstraining.org/community-training-catalog/#QPR