Experts: Suicide is preventable, free help readily available across SC

Suicide prevention experts and awareness advocates say resources and help are available locally for people experiencing suicidal thoughts or people who are coping with the loss of a loved one.

In Rock Hill last week, police officers helped convince a young woman to walk down to safety after she climbed the bell tower of a downtown church and threatened to jump. Later, hospital staff at Piedmont Medical Center performed a mental health evaluation.

On Saturday, a group of friends and family members rallied at a Cherry Road shopping center to raise awareness for suicide prevention, in memory of a Rock Hill woman who killed herself in March.

Medical resources, counseling, educational training and more are available across South Carolina by way of various agencies and charitable groups like the S.C. chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

People experiencing mental health issues and illnesses such as depression are unfairly stigmatized sometimes, said Helen Prigden, director of the South Carolina chapter of the suicide prevention organization. But “depression is not a character flaw ... it’s a response in the brain.”

“Anybody can be overwhelmed at a point in time beyond their ability to cope,” she said. “We all need to know the warning signs.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers tips for identifying the warning signs of a person at possible risk of suicide:

▪ If a person talks about killing herself, having no reason to live, feeling like a burden or feeling trapped.

▪ Behavior such as increased use of alcohol/drugs, looking for a way to kill himself, acting recklessly or aggressively, withdrawing from typical activities, or sleeping too much or too little.

▪ Exhibiting moods like depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation and anxiety.

The risk of suicide for a person can be even greater if those warning signs emerge as new or increased behaviors and, especially, if the person has recently experienced a painful event, loss or life change, according to the organization.

Rock Hill rally in memory of artist

Nicole Hawkins of Rock Hill said some people might think it sounds cliche to say awareness about suicide and mental health issues can matter, but she believes small steps can make a difference.

She’s one of several people who planned and hosted a Saturday event in memory of Christina Gainey, her best friend. Gainey died by suicide in March in Rock Hill. She was 27.

Gainey’s friends say she was a spontaneous and fun person, a talented artist and painter who often donated her artwork to charity for auction.

“She was generous, and she was always happy,” her sister Paige Gainey McCraven said.

Before c died, Hawkins said, she had little understanding of the mental health, depression and anxiety struggles many people face. As she grieved her friend’s death, Hawkins told The Herald this week, she experienced her own anxiety and panic attacks. The depression affected her life and her family until she got help.

At first, she went to her doctor, believing her symptoms might have been related to her heart. But her physical heart health was normal, Hawkins said. Instead, she was struggling to cope with the death of her best friend.

Together with family and friends, Hawkins said, she found effective ways to grieve and cope and realize “there’s still good in this world.” She also found counseling to be beneficial.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has free online resources for survivors who have lost a friend, family member, classmate or colleague to suicide. The website can help people find an expert therapist, connect with other survivors, and join in-person or online support groups.

Such options can make a difference for those who have lost someone to suicide. For Hawkins, she’s experienced such grief more than once, as another friend and two family members have also died by suicide.

The struggle to cope afterward can sometimes make people lose their faith, she said.

Opportunity for Rock Hill to get involved

Many people don’t realize suicide is preventable, Prigden said, and many people who kill themselves had untreated or undiagnosed mental health issues at the time of death. Her group helps fund research, offers training to social workers, educators and others, and advocates for public policies and laws that help those affected by suicide.

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to Prigden’s group. National statistics show the highest suicide rate in 2013 – the most current year information was available – was among people 45 to 64 years old.

Statistics from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control show suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in York County. In Chester County, it’s the 10th-leading cause of death. Those figures are from 2013, the most recent year available.

Research, treatment and help for those affected by suicide is underfunded in the U.S., Prigden said. Many people who might need assistance, she said, don’t know they can access free lifelines or hotlines for help, walk into any emergency room or hospital for help, and join free, local support groups.

Prigden likens awareness and national funding for suicide prevention programs to the way cancer was viewed in the U.S. prior to the 1970s, when Congress ramped up taxpayer support of research and resources.

Often, she said, people feel embarrassed or afraid to talk about suicide and mental health issues. But “stepping up,” reaching out, and helping, she said, is one way to contribute to prevention and awareness.

Pridgen became an advocate after her son killed himself 15 years ago, at age 25. She helped bring about South Carolina’s first “Out of the Darkness” advocacy and awareness community walks. Similar events happen across the country each year.

In Rock Hill, she said, individuals or organizations can get involved by starting a local “Out of the Darkness” event or offering other support to people affected by suicide.

“It’s incredibly heartbreaking,” Prigden said. “You don’t want this to happen to another family.”

Need help?

▪ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 800-273-8255.

▪ United Way of York County 211 – Information and referral 24 hours a day for human services needs such as counseling, food and shelter, suicide prevention, emergency shelter for children and battered women, and other services. 866-892-9211.

▪ National Alliance on Mental Illness Piedmont Tri-County offers resources and local support group meetings. Call 803-610-8174 for information and meeting times/locations.

▪ Catawba Mental Health Center, an office of the S.C. Department of Mental Health, serves York, Lancaster and Chester counties. Call 803-328-9600 or 800-475-1978.