Town Hall Meeting on Suicide

Town Hall Meeting on Suicide
Grand Haven Community Center
January 9, 2017

The meeting was opened promptly at 6:30 p.m. by Barbara Lee VanHorssen, Experi-Mentor of Extended Grace, a non-profit, grass-roots social lab that builds community while solving problems. About 75 people attended the meeting.

This is the fourth Town Hall meeting on mental illness topics. The meeting is co-hosted by Extended Grace, Grand Haven Public Schools, Ottawa County, North Ottawa Community Healthcare System (NOCHS), and the City of Grand Haven. The League of Women Voters sponsored the refreshments that came from Aldea Coffee and Grand Finale Deserts. The LWV has a health position statement that includes mental health.

Barbara presented the agenda for the evening and introduced the first group of panelists:
Sandi Stasko, Community Mental Health (CMH)
Brent VanTol, Pine Rest
Michael Pyne, Grand Haven Cares
Mark Bennett, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department
Jeff Elhart, Survivor
Sean Huntington, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)

Sandi Stasko’s remarks:
- Program coordinator for outpatient services, works with suicide prevention efforts
- Adverse Child Experiences Study (ACES) is an ongoing study of how childhood experiences affect us, including abuse, neglect, violence, substance abuse, mental illness, divorce, separation, bullying, witnessing violence, witnessing sibling abuse, racism, sexism, homelessness, natural disasters. Can affect mental and physical health, may have multiple negative effects such as lessening stress tolerance, disease, inability to make decisions, inability to communicate, creating a state of constantly being “on alert.” Physical effects may include a higher respiratory rate, faster heartbeat. How to combat this? Resiliency, helped by safety and bonding, helping people bounce back, is a very individual process. Some are helped by faith, positive perception, facing fears, journaling (especially the good things), learning to love ourselves.
- A simple exercise to reduce heart rate: place hand on heart or hug yourself for 30 seconds. Find humor. Meditate. Find out what works for you.

Brent VanTol’s remarks:
- Psychologist for Pine Rest – works in an office with people who have the intention of suicide and sometimes plans for suicide
- Suicide rates are increasing. Different demographics are increasing more than others, such as youth, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.
- Suicide affects a lot of different demographics. Where do we put our resources?
- We need to talk openly about this subject. This is important because we need to reduce the stigma of suicide and of mental illness in general; we need to make it easier for people to talk about.
- Why the increase? Numerous causes are contributing. It is much easier to obtain a gun. Opiates are much more prevalent, with younger and younger people getting access to them. Social media puts unkind and stressful pressure on kids.
- We need to discuss what helps each person on an individual level.
- “How do I talk to someone about the subject of suicide?” If you can talk about it to your kids, it will make it easier for your kids to talk to their friends about it.

- As adults, we need to know how to enhance protective factors. We need to know how to refer people to help. We need to understand the scope of the problem on an individual level – how to help and also manage our own feelings.
- See newsletter “The Mighty” for frank discussions on mental illness and suicide.

Michael Pyne’s remarks:
- 30 years of social work, chair of a group for suicide prevention, also participates in a group that studies suicide data to try to identify patterns of behavior
- A very difficult topic that touches everyone
- Data back to 1980 shows an increase in youth deaths
- 43,000 people die every year in the U.S. – as many as breast cancer
- For ages 10 to 14, it is now the leading cause of death – up 56% in 15 years and still on the increase
- Rates among the elderly are also increasing, especially over age 85
- Much more research is needed. This is a major health concern! The ACES study is important.
- Important to understand that it is not a personality flaw or a personal weakness; it is a brain malfunction.
- Social media is a constant barrage of information, some of it terrifying.
- Communities need not fear talking about the subject.
- Why are more and more medications being prescribed?
- We need a sustainable program for prevention and should look at evidence-based programs such as those in place in Montreal and in the Air Force
- Upcoming is “Resilience Month” in Muskegon, with programs and meetings with youth-based groups and schools

Mark Bennett’s remarks:
- Works in Investigative Services, here to give law enforcement perspective
- In 30 years in Ottawa County, improvements have been seen in the ability to respond effectively to mental illness/suicide situations. Law enforcement is working on “putting the tools in the tool bag” for officers to help deal with them.
- Police are the first line of prevention, by learning to recognize warning signs
- Used to just react by putting people in jail
- Ottawa County Sheriff’s Dept. gets 70,000 calls a year for service of all types. About 1600 of those directly relate to mental health issues. Of those, about 350 are suicidal ideations and/or completed acts.
- Suicides must be investigated; technically, suicide is a crime. They have to examine the situation.
- Suicide notes are not common any more. Social media clues are more likely, and they look at internet searches done on related topics
- Ottawa County Sheriff’s Dept. strives to prevent suicide.

Jeff Elhart’s remarks:
- Jeff’s brother died after a long struggle with depression.
- Survivors will ask themselves “Why? How do I feel? What actions should I have taken?” but should try to reach a point where they have no guilt and no anger.
- Suggests viewing movie “Hope Bridge” about the anger of a teen over his brother’s suicide
- Jeff found comfort in writing down the reasons he felt guilty and about how he felt he let his brother down, and buried the writing with his brother’s ashes.
- Jeff met two local “angels” who are working to come up with prevention programs
- Memorial funds ($600k so far) have been opened to fund the “Be Nice” culture which reaches out to schools, with 50,000 students reached to date. Objective is to bring education to children and other people in general. Companies participating in training include Herman Miller, RW Baird, Freedom Village, churches, and local police departments.
- Mental illness and suicide are treatable and preventable.

Sean Huntington’s remarks:
- Self-described as a “card-carrying crazy person” diagnosed as bipolar, working on establishing a drop-in center to give access to care and peer support
- Perspectives on this issue are very different in different age groups
- Peers can reach out to each other in a way that “normal” people can’t – very important to people with depression, bipolar, mentally ill
- Often typical “support” can make things worse and can escalate things. Need non-judgmental support or “we can lose our voices.” When asked “What’s wrong? How can I help?” we don’t know the answers, will shrug and tell you to leave us alone…we know we are hurting you and it makes us feel even worse. It’s much easier to talk with peers who have had similar experiences. We lie to our therapists and hide the big issues, but not with our peers.
- Big need for QBR training. Best support is more like “You can talk to me about anything,” de-escalation, no pressure. WE need to make the decision to reach out and talk. There IS a way to reach us – and we’ll come to you when we are ready. WE have to make the choice to live.
- I have lots more to say about this: please read the blog on our Facebook pages. Peers can save lives.

At this point, Barbara opened the discussion to a question-and-answer period.

Q: If someone threatens suicide over and over again, why do they do that? Is it to get attention?
A: (Michael Pyne) It might be attention-seeking, but there is no clear answer, it is very complex. When the decision is finally made to live, it usually resolves itself. About 60% of people with mental health concerns are never treated, though mental illness is life-threatening and sometimes fatal. It is hard to live with and we need to focus on the disease and treatment.
A: (Brent VanTol) Always take it seriously, every time. Risk is high if they talk about it. “No great misery goes unspoken.” Don’t shy away. Ask. Acknowledge it is hard to explain how someone is feeling. Tell them you hear and understand.
A: (Sean Huntington) When you react, “why” is not relevant. Is the decision made? That’s how to save lives. Your reaction can escalate the feelings, when pain and hurt show on your face, and lock in the cycle of self-negative talk. Stop reacting. Non-judgmental listening will not make things worse. Just being there can be enough.

Q: What are the protective factors? 
A: (Sandi Stasko) Get a group going with non-judgmental listening. “Why” is irrelevant. We’ve lost the village supporting the family, that’s what we are building in this room. You have to find your own way back to the light – there is no set cure or treatment. When you ask someone how they are, mean it, and listen to the answer. Be the person who cares, in a non-judgmental way.
A: (Sean Huntington) You want to know how you “normals” can be more like our peers. It is more instinctive with us – but we can’t effectively communicate that. We perceive we are being judged; we feel judged and shamed and not understood by you. Please realize lots may be going on. Peers help because we don’t stigmatize each other. We have no cut-and-dried rules. When we have issues, don’t act like WE are doing something to YOU. We can’t reach out but don’t take it personally. Just say you are there; let us know we can reach out when we are ready.

Next:  Small group conversation at each table, sharing why people are there and what personal connection they have to suicide

7:50 to 8:00 – Break

Promptly at 8:00, Barbara introduced the second group of panelists:
Beth Egge, DBSA National Office
Sarah Lewakowski, TCM Counseling
Tracy Wilson, Grand Haven High School
Mike Gilchrist, Spring Lake High School
David Neal, NOCH Emergency Dept.

Beth Egge’s remarks:
- From National Office of DBSA, helps local organizations develop support groups. She had bipolar disorder herself. She is a certified peer-support therapist, working through CMH and general practitioners’ offices; over 1500 such therapists have been trained by the State of Michigan. She directed a drop-in center in Holland for three years.
- Michigan is a leading state in peer support and drop-in centers.
- Peers understand that it is hard to talk about experiences. A peer does not attempt to pull you out of the hole: what a peer can do is “climb down into the hole, and when you’re ready, I’ll help you get out.”
- It’s really hard to be honest and admit feeling fear, guilt, shame; admitting these things is losing control and risking your freedom. The biggest thing is getting brave enough to ask for help, an act of courage which deserves respect. What is needed is understanding, respect, encouragement, compassion, empathy.
- There are now support groups all over west Michigan. We help give those groups tools and support.
- “Recovery is very possible.”

Sarah Lewakowski’s remarks:
- Executive director of TCM, 40 years in the community. TCM does not turn anyone away who lives in this area and has served hundreds of people, many with suicidal ideation. TCM is now starting offices in Holland also.
- Suicide is an increasing concern. Lots of teenagers need help. TCM has removed financial barriers and does not turn anyone away, but transportation continued to be a problem, so they are sending therapists directly to schools and are now in 14 area schools. They try to present preventative programs for grades K though 12.
- Social media does not help at all. Middle school and high school programs are very hard to help. QPR training is helpful with dealing with this issue.
- Ask questions. Let them know they are noticed. Is it suicidal ideation or just depression?
- Programs should try to help reduce the stigma of asking for help.
- TCM has also started a survivors support group for families. They need to be with people who truly understand.
- “We have to make people feel they are NOT worthless and DO deserve to live.”

Tracy Wilson’s remarks:
- From Grand Haven High School. She lost her dad to suicide 20 years ago, and still feels there is a stigma about discussing it. The “why” was never answered. He felt he was a burden to his family. As a parent to three boys, she knows that the risk is higher because of their exposure to it. When they discussed it, she refers to him dying of mental health issues, as a disease.
- Since 2011, six students have been lost at GHHS, and dozens have attempted suicide.
- Since 2015, there has been this local initiative for systematic, sustainable prevention, with a focus on mental health. GHHS now trains every single employee on QPR, right down to the janitors and bus drivers. They haven’t trained every student because they feel it may be too much for them to handle.
- They received a grant from “100 or More Women who Care” to support QPR training and to date over 100 people have been trained. The curriculum includes programs to teens, counseling and assessment and referrals for students, age-appropriate curriculum, parent committee to help parents understand how to handle communications, giving kids and parents information, and a “Show Up” program (put down the phone and look people in the eye).

Mike Gilchrist remarks:
-From Spring Lake High School, now in his 28th year of working in education. No suicides at SLHS in his career, but there was one attempt and to this day he still feels guilty about not taking it seriously enough.
- “Suicide is epidemic.” It is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. with 121 people taking their lives every single day.
- A survey of Ottawa County students revealed that 26% admit to depression: they hate school, 17% consider suicide, and 12% have plans for suicide. 7% report attempting at least once.
- We push extra-curricular involvement as one preventative action.
- Parents are the first line of defense. They need information and the ability and tools to communicate effectively.
- ALWAYS take threats seriously. Twice he has jumped in his car late on Saturday nights and gone to the homes of students to talk to them after getting calls from concerned parents.
- It is really important to have counselors and liaison officers. Social culture is important – they have a “Whole Child” initiative program.
- They present a suicide prevention program once a month to students, on the second Tuesday. They do get some push-back from parents.
- Stress is the #1 cause. Pressure. Difficulty getting into college. “Bystanderism.” Social media is the worst thing that has ever happened to public schools and has changed public education significantly. Their programs really help about 1/3 of the students (others say they are not impacted or don’t care).
- Entire district is trained in QPR and the “Be Nice” program. Everyone! We have 850 students to impact.

David Neal remarks:
- From NOCH, social worker in the emergency department; past experience includes pre-marital and marital counseling, jail and prison counseling – has assessed thousands of suicidal people over the years
- Talked about a display at an art gallery which consisted of a shotgun aimed at a chair, with a time set to randomly go off some time in the next 100 years. People wanted to sit in the chair for a few minutes.
- Why the increase? We have forgotten what it feels like to be human.  People don’t read books and thus have no way to learn about the human emotions of others, feeling disconnected.
- When the economy turned down, crisis intervention went way up, especially children worried about their parents losing jobs
- Life is driven by the desire to find happiness, the ability to look back and feel satisfaction, that life has been worthwhile
- How to approach suicidal people? Plain, simple, direct – honest but not brutal, make them feel human
- NOCH now holds two weekly appointments times open specifically for emergency psychiatric counseling
- “Think about what it means to be human.”

Barbara opened up the session to Q & A from the audience.

Q: (from Sean) More of a comment – we host discussion groups on Facebook. Tonight one person posted, questioning their value to the planet. The response: “You are cherished.” Do not press them. One woman talked about her experience at NOCH after a self-cutting incident where she went too deep. She felt she was verbally stigmatized by the attending nurse, ”Why would you do this? Why am I treating you when you are just going to do it again?” This only makes things worse.  Check out peer support resources. Then a question directed to Beth: What do you think is the difference between professional support and peer support?
A: (Beth) Well, we both share our stories. In fact if you had told me years ago that sharing my story would help others, I would have laughed.  It’s about connection. It’s about finding something to share, to see that you are not alone. That you can get through it. It’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts and all you hear when you are miserable is “blah blah blah.”
Validation can be the most powerful thing. Just say “It must be awful to feel that way.”
Breaking the isolation is providing hope.

Q: A comment by a Spring Lake High School graduate – she deeply appreciates the personal concern and connection with her former teachers, and felt they really cared about her. She wanted to publically say thanks for all the encouragement over the years. “Teachers always asked how we were doing before the lessons started.” She also found great value in a class for empowering women, and the peer support there. “I had parents at home, but I also had 20 parents at school, and they know me and remember me.”

Barbara concluded the meeting by asking people to write any additional comments on a flip chart provided. She thanked all the sponsors again.

The meeting adjourned at 9:02.

- Notes recorded and submitted by Bobbi Jones Sabine,
Extended Grace Volunteer