Removing the stigma on mental illness and suicide: A Public Health Column from Sue Serino
I know firsthand what suicide and mental illness does to a family. September 22 will mark the four year anniversary of my brother Donald’s death, he was 47 years old. Don was kind, handsome and smart. He loved his three children and was involved and invested in his family. He was a coach and was deeply involved in the community. Don worked for IBM, and later became a personal trainer, because he loved helping others achieve the best in themselves. He was one of the most outgoing and larger than life personalities I have ever known. He lit up every room he walked into and got a smile from everyone in it. That’s why it was so hard for my family and I to understand how someone who was loved so much, full of so much life and energy would commit suicide.
September is suicide awareness month. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, on average a person takes their own life every 13.3 minutes and in 2011 39,518 Americans took their own lives. In 2012, an estimated 1.3 million adults in the United States attempted suicide. In Dutchess County, 46 residents passed in 2013 -- the highest number of suicides in 30 years. As a community, we have learned that hard way that mental illness and suicide can shatter any family, regardless of their race, culture or socio-economic status.
After Don’s death, we realized that his struggle and pain were more common than we knew. I had close friends, even business colleagues reach out to me and share their similar stories about a family member or loved one that either committed suicide, suffered from depression or was diagnosed with a mental illness. That's when it really hit me - most people are ashamed, uncomfortable, and afraid to talk about this epidemic. I believe that people are scared of the stigma and judgment, and feel overwhelmed and not sure where to turn like I did.
So where do we go from here? As a community, we need to work together to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and depression, and work towards providing better care for those in need. Support and information should be easily accessible for families helping a loved one who is struggling with depression or mental illness. As a Dutchess County Legislator, I have worked with my colleagues in the legislature to launch a new mobile app, "Dutchess County HELPLINE", designed to help recognize the warning signs of suicide and provide a wealth of mental health resources for information and assistance. The app is an extension of Dutchess County's HELPLINE crisis telephone line where mental health professionals are available 24 hours a day, every day to provide support and assistance.
As New York State continues to cut funding for valuable and crucial services that prevent suicide, and close facilities such as the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, we need to fight to make mental health services a priority. As a community, we can all do our part as well. I know there are hundreds of families in the Hudson Valley that are struggling to seek help for a loved one. I want them to know they are not alone, should not be embarrassed, and know where they can turn.
If you would like to make a difference in honor of suicide awareness month, you can help by volunteering your time with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, making a donation, or simply reaching out to a friend, co-worker or family member who is struggling with depression to let them know there is someone that cares, and there is a place they can get help. You can also take part in the Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention in Dutchess County on September 28 at the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie at 10:00 a.m. You can gather your own team or join my team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. In Putnam County the Out of the Darkness Walk will be on on October 19 at the Carmel Firehouse House in Carmel. For more information, visit https://www.afsp.org/local-chapters/find-your-local-chapter/afsp-hudson-valley-new-york/out-of-the-darkness-community-walks/putnam-county-walk2.
There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of my brother. Suicide is a tragic loss that I hope no family will have to experience. As an elected official, I strive each day to help those in need and their loved ones get the services and treatment they rely upon. For anyone considering suicide or anyone who believes they know someone who is contemplating suicide, I strongly urge you to contact the Dutchess County HELPLINE at 485-9700 or the National Suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a telephone counselor, get information or referrals 24-hours a day, seven days a week.