Once taboo, discussions of mental health and healing grows in Worcester County
(Sept. 4, 2020) As the nation heads into National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 6-12, those who do suicide prevention and education work have one thing to say: let’s talk about suicide openly and compassionately.
“If you suspect someone is suicidal or is thinking about suicide, you use the word,” said Ron Pilling, secretary/treasurer of The Jesse Klump Suicide Awareness and Prevention Program. “Don’t say, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ say, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’”
The United State’s suicide rate has increased by 33 percent from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people, per a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) study.
Since 2008, suicide has been the 10th leading cause of death for all age groups, and by 2016 suicide became the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34.
Pilling said one of the major obstacles in suicide prevention work is stigma that trivializes mental illness as compared to physical ailments.
“If you break your arm, you go to see your doctor about it, but if you have a major depressive disorder, PTSD, anxiety issues, long-term anger issues — people are just not willing to equate a mental illness with a physical illness, or else they’d seek care,” Pilling said.
In addition to openly talking about suicide, Pilling said there are risk factors and warning signs people could learn to identify when a loved one may be contemplating suicide.
“What we teach is what we call suicide prevention first aid,” Pilling said. “We liken it to CPR. You don’t have to be a cardiologist to keep someone alive who’s having cardiac emergency until an ambulance gets there. It’s the same thing with suicide prevention.”
Risk factors, Pilling said, include a history of mental illness in the family, dramatic life events, such as a divorce, ownership of a gun, which is one of the most common tools for suicide, being a male and living in a rural area.
As for warning signs, Pilling said people should look for self-deprecating language, breaks in routine, gifting of valuables, a change in demeanor and frequent mention of death or self-isolation.
When these signs are identified, the next step is to approach the person and directly, but compassionately, address the situation with three words in mind — listen, ask and stay.
“It’s not your job to solve all of this person’s problems,” Pilling said. “It is your job to listen carefully, don’t put yourselves in their shoes unless you legitimately and honestly can, and ask, ‘Have you talked to anybody about this?’ … and then stay with that person and help them find the access to the care. Take them to a counselor … take them to meet their pastor … walk with them to the guidance counselor … to get them started on the road to finding help.”
Suicide is not an individual decision, but often involves family and friends.
Jesse Klump program President Kim Klump is a licensed environmental health specialist for the Worcester County government, a certified grief counselor and a certified mentor for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
She conducts individual and monthly suicide grievers’ group support sessions.
“The biggest question that most of them [survivors] have, especially right after a suicide, is the why — why did my loved one do this?” Klump said. “Answering that ‘why’ is always the hardest part of dealing with a suicide loss, because you never truly get an answer.”
In conjunction with the why, Klump said guilt overwhelms grievers who question their culpability in the death of their loved one.
“They always feel that there was probably something they could have done or recognized to prevent the suicide,” Klump said. “Even if there isn’t, they feel that way.”
Klump said a big part of her work is centering the individual and not generalizing their experiences.
Similarly to Pilling, Klump said the best tool to help a griever is dialogue.
“I always encourage them to talk about it as much as possible,” she said. “The more you tell the story, the more you talk about it, each time you go through that [experience] again helps you lessen that trauma.”
Another tool Klump likes to recommend is journaling, although she recognizes it doesn’t work for everyone.
“[You try] to keep a record of your thoughts and feelings and where you’re at in your journey,” she said. “Maybe not every day, but you try to touch base with your journal once a week even. You can start looking back and see what progress you made.”
By journaling, grievers have told Klump that they could better handle their emotions, when previously they could not go through a single day without feeling despondent.
Her work has faced challenges because of the pandemic, as she has had to move much of it online.
“A big problem here is that many do not have high-speed internet, so it was difficult” Klump said.
Klump moved her grieving sessions to a local park where participants must social-distance and wear masks, which has helped she said.
And despite grim national suicide trends, Klump and Pilling said they have seen great progress in Worcester County in terms of awareness.
“I’ve seen a tremendous increase in resources, involvement and people just talking about the subject over the 12 years or so I’ve been doing this,” Klump said.
When she first began her work, Klump said merely uttering the word suicide had caused people to shut down and shy away from the conversation.
“I think it’s basically the way people have been brought up and brainwashed throughout the years,” Klump said. “It was thought that suicide was an evil thing almost like an evil spirit had taken over the body. It wasn’t a natural thing for somebody to take their own life, so even the church was not looking at suicide the same way… saying that somebody who died that way will go to hell versus heaven.”
All of these things helped to paint it in a negative light, Klump said, rather than looking at the underlying causes, such as mental health.
“It’s [suicidal ideation] a treatable thing that just like any other physical ailment could be,” Klump said. “That’s a whole change of mindset that had to occur through education and getting the word out there.”
Typically, the Jesse Klump program, as well as other health agencies, hosts a variety of events during National Suicide Prevention Week.
Many of those events have been canceled, although Pilling highlighted the Worcester County Health Fair to take place on Sept. 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Worcester County Recreation Center, 6030 Public Landing Rd.
Pilling also promoted the annual Ocean City Out of the Darkness Walk, which will take place virtually this year.
The event is scheduled for Sept. 26-27, 2020, and focuses on self-care. Participants may walk, run, cook or read in support of suicide prevention.
If participants go on a walk or run, they are encouraged to wear an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or Out of the Darkness shirt, take a picture and share it on social media using #MDTogetherToFightSuicide and tagging @asfpmaryland.
Pictures may also be shared on the “My Out of the Darkness Experience” virtual wall.
“We are going through a very difficult time for everybody with the pandemic,” Klump said. “It makes our lives different in so many ways and I encourage everybody … to notice [a loved one’s] body language, notice what they say, if you’re concerned about them reach out. Sometimes all it takes is picking up the phone and saying ‘Hey, I’m just checking in with you, how are you today?’ because so many people are suffering.”
The Jesse Klump program’s website acts as a liaison for the public to get access to local, state and national resources, such as suicide warning signs, suicide first aid, health department’s and crisis lines, juvenile mental health education, post-suicide attempt first aid, survivor grief counseling and more.
Visit the website at http://www.jessespaddle.org/ineedhelp.html . To register for the Ocean City Out of the Darkness Walk visit https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.event&eventID=7068 or the event’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/events/640416380053740/?acontext=%7B%22event_action_history%22%3A[%7B%22mechanism%22%3A%22search_results%22%2C%22surface%22%3A%22search%22%7D]%7D . If you are contemplating suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, the Maryland Crisis Hotline at 1-800-422-0009, or the Worcester County Health Department at 410