Families turn grief to suicide prevention efforts
Those who have lost loved ones, experts, urge awareness of depression over holidays
Dec. 18, 2013 |
Mary Reeves, left, with her daughter Anna Steele, found help through the support group Survivors of Suicide following the death of her son, Trey. She now works to helps others. / Heidi Heilbrunn/Staff
The morning after the 2005 Super Bowl, Trey Reeves drove his father’s pickup truck to his parents’ place at Lake Keowee.
The month before had been tough for Reeves. Depressed over a break-up with his girlfriend, he was also suffering withdrawal from the anabolic steroids he’d been using to bulk up.
Worried, his mother, Mary Reeves, followed him from their home in Piedmont and raced inside to find her beloved son lying dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. He was 25.
“He had just shot himself when I got there,” Reeves told The Greenville News. “It is a life-altering event. You never get over it.”
Though suicide is a subject fraught with religious and moral implications that many people want to avoid, it happens more often than people think. And the numbers are on the rise, both locally and across the nation.
There were four suicides in Greenville County between Nov. 8 and Nov. 13 alone, according to Coroner Parks Evans.
And the holidays can be a particularly tough time of year, with higher rates of depression, according to Dr. Kenneth Rogers, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Greenville Health System.
But Reeves and other survivors of suicide say there is help to be found. There is hope.
And many have turned their grief into action by speaking out to end the stigma of suicide and offering a hand to those struggling with thoughts of ending their own lives.
On the rise
Every day in the United States, 105 people take their own lives, according to the American Association of Suicidology. And nearly 1 million make an attempt each year.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation — the third leading cause for young people, the group reports.
And suicide rates have been increasing nationally for the past several years, particularly among military veterans and young people, Rogers said.
South Carolina, with 637 suicides in 2010, ranked 28th nationally in the rate of suicide.
In Greenville County, there were twice as many suicides as homicides in 2011 — a trend that’s held for several years, Evans said. There were 34 homicides in 2011, but 75 suicides, he said. In 2000, there were 42 suicides.
Victims range from the very young to the very old, he said. Their deaths are sometimes linked to a domestic situation, or a murder-suicide, he said.
Often, the economy is implicated.
“These are people who haven’t had work for a long time and they can’t provide for themselves or their family any more,” Evans said. “Or they lost their house and are having to leave.”
Sometimes, the deaths seem more senseless than other suicides, he said, adding that he’s seen cases where adolescents have killed themselves over a bad grade.
Mental Health America of Greenville County runs CRISISline, a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline, and Survivors of Suicide, a support group for people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.
Executive director Jennifer Piver said calls from suicidal residents are up 41 percent — or about 280 people — this year over 2012.
“In 2012, we had 18 individuals who had done something to kill themselves while talking to us — what we call in-progress suicide calls,” she said. “Up to this point this year, we’ve had 55.”
The agency also has seen a 38 percent increase this year in the number of clients seeking support after a loved one’s suicide, she said.
Piver attributes the increase to inadequate treatment options in the area, depression over long-term unemployment — a factor that’s been on the rise since the economy went sour in 2008 — and physical health issues like chronic pain.
The holidays are a critical time of year, Rogers said, with higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts.
“It’s important for families and friends to watch out for family members that may be at risk,” he said. “There are many cases where you may not have a clue, but the vast majority will usually tell someone close to them they are thinking about killing themselves.”
That needs to be taken seriously, he said.
Things to watch for include people who’ve experienced significant losses, those who are depressed, engaging in different patterns of behavior such as increased impulsivity, drinking and drug use, or someone who was the life of the party who doesn’t want to go out any more, Rogers said.
A Wren High School graduate, Trey Reeves stayed physically fit at the Citadel, his mother said. He loved sports, and after college, he worked as a co-host on WCCP 104.9 FM Talk Sports radio and coached basketball for 8-year-olds.
A regular at the gym, he was in great shape. But eventually, he began to take steroids to look more muscular, she said. He quit them about a year before his death, but that withdrawal changed him, she said. He missed a lot of work and complicated his life with drugs and alcohol, she said. And though he talked to his friends, he didn’t seek professional help.
“If you had asked him three months before he died, he would have told you he was the happiest guy in the world and had the best life,” she said. “But the worst thing we think he did … was anabolic steroids. It was the withdrawal from them that did it. I think he just gave up.”
Major depression is the most common reason for suicide, followed by bipolar disorder and psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, Rogers said.
‘A factory reject’
It was bipolar disorder that drove Traci Barr to attempt suicide.
As the eldest of three children, the Greenville woman grew up with loving parents who were able to provide her with everything she needed.
But even as a child, she said, she felt “like a factory reject.” And by the time she hit 14, she was depressed and had lost interest in friends, sports or anything she once enjoyed. Plagued by insomnia, she found school difficult. She thought about killing herself even then, she said.
Her family doctor diagnosed her with “manic depression,” now called bipolar disorder, and prescribed an antidepressant.
Somehow, Barr managed to get through high school and college. During the manic phases of her illness, where she was productive and organized, she’d find a job and begin to make a life with the help of a psychiatrist and medication. But the crash inevitably came, rendering her helplessly depressed for months at a time, struggling to get out of bed.
When a long-time relationship ended because of her illness, she began a downward spiral that ended with a nervous breakdown, hospitalization, electroconvulsive therapy and, about two years ago, a suicide attempt.
“The only thing I had in my life, I felt, to anchor me was taking care of my dog,” she said. “And in that time frame, my dog died, and I knew it was only a matter of time.”
In January 2012, she said, she took a massive dose of Xanax and Ambien.
“I’d written a letter to Mom and Dad, and my intent was to crawl into bed and just not wake up again,” she said. “Instead, I got behind the wheel … and crashed my car into a ditch.”
At a local psychiatric hospital, Barr, now 50, finally found help that turned her life around. It included following a strict medication regimen, going to group therapy and other counseling, and accepting her condition.
“For me, it was a realization that I couldn’t keep fighting what was true about me, which was that I am a person with mental illness,” she said, “as much as I don’t want to be, as much as I have spent over 35 years trying not to be.”
Something that can be done
For coroners, dealing with suicides is especially hard, Evans said.
“It is tougher in cases such as this where you see so many things that could possibly have been done,” he said. “And it’s always a situation where loved ones want to know why this happened, why they did what they did. And a lot of times we cannot ever answer that.”
Evans said there must be something that can be done to raise awareness about suicide and reduce the numbers.
That’s what Lynn and Marion Terry want to do.
Their son, Bryan, committed suicide eight years ago after struggling with bipolar disorder for most of his life.
Though he kept searching for medications that would relieve his symptoms without leaving him feeling emotionally flat, or in some cases, even worse than the illness, he never found them, his mother, Lynn, said.
“After a while, he grew weary of trying,” she said. “He would think, ‘Nothing’s going to help. There is no hope for me.’ ”
At the age of 24, he called his parents to say good-bye, and took his own life.
Though devastated, it opened the Terrys’ eyes to the shocking number of suicides and put them on a path to learning more about mental illness, to work to end the stigma and advocate for more care.
Times have changed, they said, but not enough. Society still doesn’t understand how many people are affected, they said.
One in four adults, or about 61.5 million Americans, has a mental illness in a given year, NAMI reports, and one in 17, or about 13.6 million, has a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
“More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide have one or more mental disorders,” said Ken Dority, executive director of NAMI Greenville.
“The more people talk about it,” Lynn Terry said, “the more people will realize how many people are affected.”
The Terrys want to see mental illness regarded like diabetes or any other condition, and given the same attention as cancer when it comes to research into treatments and cures.
Reeves, who runs a sewing machine and fabric business in Greenville, said no one thinks twice about treatment for a broken bone or cancer.
“It is an illness like any other,” she said.
Though many factors influence why people don’t get help, stigma is at the top of the list, Lynn Terry said.
Evans said that simply ruling a death a suicide can cause problems with survivors because of the stigma.
“The family’s very unhappy because of the stigma that goes with it,” he said.
And, he added, the survivors are victims, too.
Reeves said so many people were traumatized by her son’s suicide in addition to his family, including the children on the basketball team. His Citadel class even established a scholarship in his memory.
The cost of care and lack of insurance coverage for mental health treatment is another reason people don’t get help, which also contributes to the stigma, said MHAGC’s Piver.
Last month, the federal government issued final rules to enable the same coverage for mental health disorders as for physical conditions in group and individual insurance plans. The Affordable Care Act also requires mental health coverage for plans in the health care marketplace.
That coverage should help make treatment more affordable and accessible, and hopefully reduce the number of suicides, Rogers said.
But while there are providers who take insurance, there are also many who don’t, he said, and that can delay care.
According to new research from Weill Cornell Medical College, the number of psychiatrists nationwide who take private insurance declined 17 percent — to 55 percent — from 2005 to 2010. Those taking Medicare dropped nearly 20 percent, and only 43 percent took Medicaid — the lowest of all the specialties.
Such low rates may affect access to care, the researchers wrote, and if the trend continues, the impact may be more severe.
“For example, not only are there fewer physicians who can help people with moderate to severe symptoms of mental illness, those patients must then try to find a doctor who will take their insurance,” said Dr. Tara F. Bishop, an assistant professor in the school’s Department of Public Health and Medicine. “This is not a formula for success.”
A lack of services
And Greenville suffers from a shortage of psychiatrists and other providers, while state-funded mental health centers, which have seen budget cuts in recent years, are overburdened, experts say.
More than half of those with mental illness — children and adults — receive no mental health services, Dority said.
“Folks are just struggling because a lot of the centers had to narrow their focus to treat those who are very severely mentally ill, leaving a huge gap of folks who just aren’t able to get treated by mental health professionals,” Piver said.
But Rogers said it’s important for people to find a safe place to talk about their thoughts and feelings. While some may need professional care, others can benefit from a support group, like one run by NAMI or MHAGC, he said.
Dority said that along with offering support to those with mental illness and their families, groups like NAMI-Greenville and MHAGC work to raise awareness and educate the community.
The Terrys are members of NAMI, and Reeves found help at Survivors of Suicide. They all work to help others now.
“Helping is healing,” Reeves said. “We all learn and gain from each other.”
Barr, a healthy eating specialist who is now a member of NAMI’s board, said the group made a huge difference in her life. And what drives her most these days is helping others.
“There still needs to be so much work done in terms of awareness, and if (people) don’t understand it, they fear it, and possibly keep turning their backs on it,” she said.
“Two years ago, I was not capable of doing a load of laundry,” she continued. “I feel very strong now. It’s a miracle that I survived. That I didn’t die in the overdose or the car wreck. And now I feel optimistic. There’s real hope for us to overcome.”