On Saturday, September 18, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held the Out of the Darkenss Walk at Southside Park. The public event included a memory wall and an honor bead ceremony to honor those who have had a loved one die by suicide.
In addition to being a day or remembrance, the event seeks to reach out to those struggling with suicidal ideation, providing connection, support and resources.
The Tyler Loop sat down with Brittney Nichols, director for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at UT Health Science Center; Kay Pleasant, Out of the Darkness committee chair; and Kim Cathey, Out of the Darkness Walk registration coordinator.
Nichols, who has worked closely with Pleasant to organize the walk over the years, said suicide is a looming community issue that people are very hesitant to talk about. One of the event’s objectives is to mitigate the stigma surrounding suicide.
“[The event] is very powerful and it’s very serious, but it’s not necessarily a sad day. You also feel a lot of joy and connection. It helps address the stigma of suicide, so it’s a safe space for people who want to come support that issue.
“Also, we have a lot of the same people who struggled with a loss that attend annually, and I think it’s a very important event for them,” said Nichols.
“Losing someone to suicide can be very isolating. If you lose someone to suicide, there’s not typically the same support and attention. [At the walk], you instantly see, ‘Okay, you’re not the only person around who’s suffered with this issue,’” said Nichols.
Nichols and Pleasant attested to the importance of the bead ceremony at the walk. “We have beads that signify different types of loss and connection to the issue of suicide. When people come, they’ll wear beads, which signify their loss.
“So you can look around and see the people who may be struggling with the loss of a spouse or the loss of a sibling or a child, just by looking at what they’re wearing,” said Nichols.
Pleasant said the bead ceremony is an especially moving part of the walk.
“It’s the one thing that will bring chills and it’s really meaningful. I haven’t been to one that I don’t shed some tears just because it’s emotional but comforting, and it’s healing,” she said. It is so amazing to be able to look around and without ever having to speak any words, know who shares your loss.”
In addition to the bead ceremony, Pleasant said there is a memorial wall available. “If you’ve lost someone to suicide, you may bring a picture of them and put it on the wall,” she said.
Another special feature throughout the walk are signs held by volunteers along the trail. “We have people who create what we call signs of hope. Some of the messages on hand-painted signs are ‘You are special. You’re not alone. “No one struggles alone,’” said Pleasant.
When Cathey’s nephew, Christopher, died by suicide, it opened her to exploring issues of suicide for the first time. “Until you experienced it, suicide is something you never think about.
“It’s affected my life in many ways. Spiritually I’ve always been a Christian, but I really had to lean on my faith and my church to get me through that,” said Cathey.
Cathey said each year, the Out of the Darkness walk includes people who have lost a loved one to suicide only weeks before. “They really need that support and that comfort,” she said.
“The walk, it’s a remembrance just for [Christopher] on that day. It’s just a day that we get to remember him with everybody else that is remembering someone,” said Cathey.
“We’re there to honor the way you lived. Because they lived for so many more years than the one day that they died,” said Pleasant.
Pleasant said the walk helps people understand that loved ones who died by suicide were three-dimensional people with full lives.
“You look at these faces. You might have this idea that these people are depressed, and that is not the case. They’re all happy, incredibly happy. Circumstances came to a head where they just didn’t know how to live anymore.”
Cathay added, “It’s everybody from wealthy to poor black, white, Hispanic, straight gay — whatever you are — it affects everybody.”
Half of the monies raised during the walk go to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which goes to research and other types of initiatives. The other part of the money raised stays with the North Texas AFSP chapter.
Pleasant has dreams for what comes next to support those affected by suicide locally.
“Tyler has never had an international survivors of suicide loss day, which is an event the AFSP puts on all over the world. It is the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I went to my first one in Dallas and I thought. ‘We need this in East Texas, because there’s so many people here who won’t drive to Dallas for such an event.’ It is only for survivors of suicide loss,” said Pleasant.
The North Texas AFSP chapter has also been able to send two people to training as facilitators for a monthly bereavement group, Talk Saves Lives, with plans for the group to begin again in January 2022.
Pleasant would like to see suicide support programs in schools. “We could bring this into the schools. There’s several educational programs to do these talks and bring speakers to our schools,” she said.
Nichols said her work with the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, funded at the previous legislative session, has targeted initiatives in hopes of seeing a decrease in suicides statewide.
“We have some initiatives that strive to increase mental health access and increased [mental health] workforce for child adolescence.
“We have a child psychiatry access network where we provide free consultations by child and adolescent psychiatrists to primary care and adult physicians who are working to manage children and adolescents with behavioral health issues,” said Nichols.
Nichols enumerated the challenges and needs for suicide support in East Texas. “There is a shortage nationally of psychiatrists. There is a state shortage of psychiatrists. And so that shortage is even more acute locally in our region.
“If you look at the numbers statewide for how many psychiatrists there are in the state, it doesn’t look all that bad. But then you realize these physicians cluster in big cities, so rural areas tend to be very short. This is one of the primary reasons that the [UT Health] Science Center got into this field, is to increase the mental health workforce in the state,” said Nichols.
Nichols said there are multiple factors contributing to high suicide rates in our region. “Northeast, Texas has a suicide rate that is 43% higher than the state average. So it’s a significant issue. For Texans aged, 15 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. We believe there’s a lot of factors that contribute to it that kind of create the perfect storm if you will.”
In another alarming statistic, Smith County, which encompasses Tyler and is home to more than 225,000 residents, has the highest suicide rate among the state’s 25 most populous counties.
“We know that in rural areas, suicide rates are higher for teenagers. We know that we have some higher rates of physical health issues in Northeast Texas. We have some substance abuse rates that could be contributing to that. Physical health affects mental health,” said Nichols.
Nichols said there are two easy language changes that can be implemented immediately to help break the suicide stigma.
“We could stop saying ‘committed [suicide]’. Because it sounds like a crime.
“Also to say ‘suicide’ and not talk around it. I think it’s a type of death that we avoid talking about generally. We shouldn’t do that, because there’s this fear that talking about it makes people do it. There’s no evidence that talking about it is going to make somebody do it.
“Sometimes people will avoid asking people if they’re having those thoughts, for fear that broaching the subject is going to cause it, and that’s not true at all,” said Nichols.
Nichols said those at higher risk for death by suicide include people who’ve attempted before; people who have a family history of suicide; and people with a history of child abuse, neglect or trauma as a child.
“Prolonged stress, bullying, relationship problems, unemployment, a divorce, a financial crisis — really nearly anything that increases stress significantly in general in a negative way can be a risk factor.
“The pandemic, it increases stress at all levels, and it also increases isolation. A history of depression and substance use is also a risk factor, and then serious physical health conditions like chronic or major pain,” said Nichols
Nichols said preventing all instances of suicide may be an unhelpful goal.
“I don’t want to say every suicide can be prevented, because that unnecessarily puts a lot of guilt on loss survivors. But key to prevention is being willing to talk to people and check in with people. The more isolated someone is, the more at risk that they are.”
Nichols said she recommends seeing a counselor if you are struggling. “There are multiple places to find counselors in Tyler. If you start with a counselor and they’re telling you that you need some more help, then you would start looking for a psychiatrist.
“Now, if this is more of a high risk situation and it’s more of an imminent issue, of course, you want to go to the ER. If you’re alone and you don’t know what to do, there is a suicide line.” That number is 1 800 273 8255 or suicidelifelineprevention.org.
Like East Texas’ regional statistics, there are some alarming national statistics. “In 2019, there were an estimated 1.38 million suicide attempts in the U.S., which is just astounding,” said Nichols. People tend to hear the numbers of people who’ve died by suicide, but we often don’t hear stats around attempts.”
Tyler’s Out of the Darkness Walk aims to create hope, understanding that hope has the power to rescue those considering suicide.
“Part of the struggling with suicide is feeling like things are completely hopeless. And so when you feel like things are hopeless, you feel like they’re never going to get better.
“People who are struggling, they cannot see that. It’s like wearing shaded glasses that don’t allow you to see the possibilities of what could come. It’s really that loss of hope that is the most dangerous.
If a person says they are considering suicide, there are some helpful responses. Take the person seriously; stay with them; and help them remove lethal means.
“I really want people to be hopeful. People get better all the time. Things can change and there is hope, and there are resources and support,” said Nichols.
Zachary Correa is a photographer from Dallas, Texas, now living in Winona. He considers himself a humanist and naturalist, inspired by John Goodall and Dylan Thomas. Correa appreciates his loving family and his two furry companions, Walker and Molly.
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