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Generating Suicide Awareness

State, county organizations partner with faith communities in fight against depression and suicide

Mental health professionals and representatives from faith-based communities joined last week to discuss ways to generate awareness about depression and suicide.

"This year our calls have increased by 36 percent overall," said Carol Loftur-Thun, executive director of CrisisLink, a Northern Virginia based 24-hour crisis hotline.

"Our suicide calls have increased 180 percent," she said. "This year we've had 20,000 calls alone."

Because suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24 and the 11th leading cause of death in America, according to the American Association of Suicidology, Fairfax Partnership for Youth, the Virginia Department of Health and CrisisLink co-sponsored the June 16 interfaith conference.

"This is not just a project about youth," said Fran Gatlin, psychologist Fairfax County Public Schools. "Our youth can't be healthy if their parents aren't healthy, if their communities aren't healthy."

IN 2003, 64 people died by suicide in Fairfax County — more than one person per week, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

In Virginia an average of one middle or high school student dies by suicide each week, according to the state department of health.

"The most preventable form of death is suicide," said Gatlin. "As a psychologist I am seeing more teens who are living on the edge of not caring to live."

In 2001, 36 percent of teens surveyed in Fairfax County Public Schools reported that they had felt sad or hopeless for days or weeks, according to FCPS' Communities That Care Survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders.

Almost 19 percent reported that they had seriously considered suicide, and more than 8 percent reported one or more suicide attempts during the previous 12-months, according to the survey.

"It is a situation that requires a lot more thought and input about how we're going to help these kids in the throws of their depression," said Gatlin.

She went on to explain because teens experience various hormonal changes during puberty and adolescence it can be difficult to notice depression; depression is different depending on an individual.

"We really don't know what causes depression," said Sara Thompson, senior director, adult mental health services, National Mental Health Association.

Thompson highlighted signs of depression including a persistent feeling of sadness, anxiousness or an "empty" mood, sleeping too much or too little, change in weight or appetite, fatigue, feeling hopeless or worthless and thoughts of suicide or death.

Thompson said if any person experiences five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more, they should seek medical help to determine if they have clinical depression.

"Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses," she said. "Sixteen percent of the population will experience major depression in their lifetime."

Women experience depression at almost twice the rate of men and attempt suicide about three times as often as men, but males are four times more likely to die from suicide than females, according to the National Mental Health Association.

In the United States, 12 million women experience clinical depression each year, while one in eight women will experience depression sometime during their lives.

At least six million men in the United States experience a depressive disorder every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

"THERE IS A NEED for a much more comprehensive policy for mental health in the years to come," said Laurie Young, executive director Older Women's League. "Mental illness, substance abuse and depression are not a normal process of aging. It's OK in our culture to make fun of aging, and that potentially waives off serious problems."

Americans 85 and older have the highest rate of suicide, said Young. At 17.7 percent, people 75 to 84 years old have the second highest rate of suicide, according to Young.

"What you need to do," she said addressing conference attendees, "is take this information and teach someone else."

Although there has been a growing awareness of mental illness and risk of suicide in religious institutions, faith communities do not always know how to help, said the Rev. Jeri Fields of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.

Initiated by the Fairfax Partnership for Youth task force on youth suicide prevention and depression, the goals of the conference were to eliminate fears and motivate people to get involved.

Through the course of the all-day event, attendees learned how depression and suicide affects varying age groups, listened to a panel discussion about religious and cultural approaches to mental illness and suicide, heard from suicide survivors and ended with brainstorming sessions.

One way people can get involved is by educating others that clinical depression is treatable, Thompson said. More information should be made public about depression and suicide to reduce fears and increase support for those who are struggling she said.

"The most common treatment is a combination of medications and psychotherapy," she said. "More than 80 percent of those who seek treatment show improvement."

But she added it is important to be "cognizant that there are many different roads" to treatment, and that what works for one person may not work for the other.

"Make your church or place of worship welcoming to people with mental illness," said Young to the religious representatives present. "Faith could be a very important part of their recovery, or it may not, but bottom line is you have to be aware."

Thompson said if someone is confronted with a loved one or friend considering suicide the most important thing to do is stay calm, listen and get immediate help. She recommended immediately calling CrisisLink, a local 24-hour hotline open year round to help those in need.