Deacon Ray and Kathy Garbach’s daughter, Meg, took her own life in 2014 at the age of 27. Although their daughter’s suicide is incredibly difficult to talk about, the couple knows it’s imperative that they do so.
Because talk saves lives.
This simple message is one that Karen Heisig shared with the approximately 50 teens and adults who came out to St. Joseph Church in Penfield last June to hear her talk about suicide prevention. And it’s the same message that Heisig, a board member of western New York’s chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is sharing again during a series of presentations at Monroe County libraries this fall.
Open, honest conversations, partnered with education as well as medical and emotional interventions, can prevent suicide, agreed Lynne Mignemi, cochair of the Livingston County Suicide Prevention Task Force, which is part of the Genesee Valley Health Partnership.
“Until we openly talk about this topic, more individuals will die by suicide. … It is a life-threatening health condition and the losses are too many,” Mignemi said.
Those losses — nearly 800,000 a year throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization — make suicide one of the 10 leading causes of death for Americans, Heisig said. And among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death, she added.
Locally, four students from Penfield High School alone lost their lives by suicide in an 18-month period during 2016-17. This tragic loss prompted Father James Schwartz, pastor at St. Joseph Parish, to ask Deacon Garbach to help him find a way to educate teens and their families about suicide, and to give them a chance to ask any questions they may have. Deacon Garbach knew Heisig through his work with Meg’s Gift — a charity he and his wife set up after their daughter’s death to advocate for mental-health intervention — so he asked her to speak in Penfield last June.
Suicide is an issue that has not been widely discussed in the past, primarily because of the stigma that still clings to mental-health conditions, said Deacon Garbach. Research consistently has shown that nine out of 10 people who die by suicide have a mental-health condition, with depression being the most common of these, Heisig said.
“We must reduce stigma and treat mental wellness in the same manner that we talk about and treat physical wellness,” Mignemi said. “If a loved one was diagnosed with diabetes, we would openly discuss that health issue and offer support and suggestions. We do not do that with mental wellness because of the stigma and shame.”
Eradicating this stigma is one of the goals of both Meg’s Gift as well as the Talk Saves Lives presentations Heisig gives through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Detecting the presence of a mental-health condition in a person and getting that person to seek treatment are key to preventing suicide, Heisig said.
Warning signs that a person may be considering suicide include a change in eating or sleeping habits, a lack of interest in activities the person previously enjoyed, or any unexplained change in behavior, Heisig said, noting that the AFSP’s website, afsp.org, contains a more detailed list of warning signs.
It’s important for teens to be able to identify these signs, as they frequently spend more hours each day with each other than they do with their parents, Deacon Garbach said. And teens also have to know that “if you see something, say something,” Heisig added.
It’s not uncommon for people, especially parents, to hesitate to ask if someone is considering suicide, thinking that the question might put the idea in the person’s head, she said. Research has shown this is not the case, however. On the contrary, asking the question may let that person know he or she is not alone, and help is available, said Mignemi, who also is Livingston County’s probation director.
“They need to talk openly and honestly about the topic of mental health and suicide, directly asking the person if they are having thoughts of suicide, asking them if they have a plan, all in a nonjudgmental fashion. Then they need to be prepared to provide information to that person on resources for care,” Mignemi said.
When a person is in crisis and feeling suicidal, it’s imperative to put time and distance between the person and his or her means of committing suicide, Heisig said. Suicidal feelings often are temporary and can come on intensely but be gone in a few hours or even a few minutes, so delaying a person from taking action allows time for the suicidal urges to pass or for mental-health interventions to take place, thus saving a life, she said.