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Suicide forum held at PHCC
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Among panelists who participated in a community forum on suicide at Patrick Henry Community College on Saturday were (from left) suicide prevention coordinator Amy Hart; crisis counselor Leslie Firebaugh; the Rev. Thurman Echols, pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church; Sammy Redd, coordinator of college access for the New College Institute; and veteran Charles Ross. (Bulletin photo by Mickey Powell)

Monday, October 1, 2012


By the time people decide to commit suicide, they may not be sane enough to realize the emotional turmoil it will cause their families and friends, according to participants in a weekend forum on the topic.

Libby Durham, an experienced crisis counselor, said she thinks her husband had reached a point where he no longer was rational when he took his life, apparently as a result of emotional trauma he suffered in the Vietnam War.

She spoke about her experiences with him as part of “Restoring Hope: A Conversation About Suicide,” on Saturday at Patrick Henry Community College.

Durham said her husband, who served two tours in Vietnam while in the military, came home “a different man” after witnessing pain and suffering during the war.

When the Gulf War started, he became nervous and depressed, and it grew worse over time, she said.

“He knew something was bothering him ... but he couldn’t figure it out,” and neither could doctors who tried to help him, Durham said.

She said she now realizes that he had buried his Vietnam trauma deep in his mind, but “it started easing back” when he saw Gulf War images on television.

After vowing he never would commit suicide, he eventually did. Durham thinks it was a sudden act and he did not comprehend what he was doing.

Knowing him as well as she did, she said, “if he had planned it, he would have written me a (suicide) note.”

It is natural for human beings to strive “to stay alive ... at all costs,” said Sammy Redd, coordinator of college access for the New College Institute. Therefore, suicide is “completely against” a person’s biological nature.

Redd, whose father died by suicide, said he is bipolar and he sometimes has had thoughts of suicide, although he never has attempted it. He said he takes medication to keep his medical condition in check.

In most cases when people kill themselves, it seems that “dominoes fall,” Redd said, referring to emotional stressors, and when the final one falls, “suicide is imminent” and in most cases is not a conscious choice.

When people take their lives, it creates “a sense of loss that will always be” in the hearts of family members and friends, said Donna Via, who lost both her husband and father to suicide.

Crisis counselor Leslie Firebaugh, whose husband died by suicide, noted that everyone goes through emotional slumps. The problem is when an emotional downturn goes on for an extended period, she said.

Potential indicators that someone may be thinking about suicide, according to the panelists, include chronic depression and suddenly giving away prized possessions. People may be more prone to suicide, they said, if someone in their families has done it or they live in an unstable household.

Via encouraged people thinking about suicide to talk to someone about their feelings.

Yet ultimately, “it’s not what someone else thinks about me. It’s what I think about me” that matters, said Charles Ross, whose son took his life.

The forum was organized by the Suicide Survivors Collaborative, a group of area residents and agencies working to address suicide, which is “in epidemic proportion” in the region, according to Bethann James, executive director of CONTACT, a local telephone crisis information and referral service.

About 100 people attended the forum. Speakers included people who have tried to take their lives and/or seen suicide in their families, thought about taking their lives at some point and professionals who have experience in counseling such people.

“Some people need help and show it,” said the Rev. Thurman Echols, pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Axton. Then again, he said, “some people need help and don’t know it.”

Both the religious and nonreligious have committed suicide or attempted it, but those who have a relationship with God may be less prone, Echols said.

J.C. Richardson Jr., a minister and member of the Martinsville School Board who attended the discussion, said he thinks ministers need more training on how to help family members and friends of people who commit suicide.

Based on religious beliefs, Richardson said, ministers sometimes tell people that loved ones who killed themselves are not going to heaven. He said that is “a dumb and stupid thing” to say to someone who is upset and grieving.

Instead, “shut up and bow your head” and pray for the person who died and the grief-stricken, he said.

Navy veteran Jim Regard mentioned increases in reported suicides among armed forces personnel.

Because soldiers are expected to show great emotional strength, suicide has been a stigma in the military, Regard said. He noted that soldiers who indicate they may be considering suicide could be punished, such as by having special privileges taken away.

As a result, he said, soldiers often think the only way to get rid of their emotional pain is to “get rid of themselves.”

But the military is beginning to look for rational ways to keep soldiers who are emotionally stressed out from killing themselves, according to Regard.

Amy Hart, a suicide prevention coordinator with the nonprofit organization Mental Health America, recommended that everyone seek training on how to help people who indicate they might kill themselves.

“Anyone who knows what to do (to help someone in crisis) is going to be a benefit to someone” eventually, she said.

Panelists offered some basic strategies for trying to help someone thinking about ending his or her life.

Deborah Menefee of Citizens Against Family Violence suggested that if a person says he might commit suicide, listen carefully to the person and then calmly repeat the person’s comments.

That will let the person know he is being heard and provide time for both people to think about what to say next, Menefee said.

“Anything on the tip of your tongue probably is not going to be helpful,” Redd said. “Just listen ... in a nonjudgmental way” and try to point them in the right direction to get help.

“Active listening is a very key point” in counseling someone who may take his or her life, Menefee said. She noted that people can listen to others but not really hear what they are saying.

Most of all, “let them know you care,” said Durham, who has worked with CONTACT for more than 30 years.

If a person ends up taking his or her life, people who tried to help them should not think they failed, panelists mentioned. Suicide ultimately is the decision of the person who does it, panelists said.

“You are not responsible for that person’s actions,” Durham said.


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