‘Talk Saves Lives’ Seen As Precursor To Greater Suicide Awareness
A pair of free, recent virtual presentations that developed from September Suicide Awareness Month observations are being touted as the beginning of a greater focus on this public health crisis in 2021.
According to Selectman Maureen Crick Owen, who organized the local effort along with Anna Wiedemann, the town’s goal was to ensure that residents of all ages have access to the resources they need to lead productive healthy lives. Crick Owen previously told The Newtown Bee that just this year in Connecticut, on average, one person died by suicide every 21 hours, and suicide remains the second leading cause of death for those age 10 to 34.
The desire to focus on prevention led Newtown to partner with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The first initiative involved hosting an AFSP presentation called, “Talk Saves Lives,” on November 5 and 19.
Talk Saves Lives is a community-based introduction to suicide prevention that covered the general scope of suicide, the research on prevention, and how to step in if someone seems to be contemplating suicide. First Selectman Dan Rosenthal gave opening remarks during the first segment, and Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue opened the second with a few words.
A question and answer session was also scheduled at the end of each installment.
“I have to credit Maureen and Anna for recognizing how the social isolation and other factors related to the pandemic may have increased the possibility that residents were becoming more depressed and lonely,” Rosenthal said. “It was great to see how the schools, our Human Services Department, and the Health District also supported the effort.”
‘You Are Not Alone’
Pointing out the title of the presentation “Newtown Cares — You Are Not Alone,” the first selectman said even if people were not willing or able to participate in the AFSP webinar, it increased awareness of the many community agencies, staff, and residents who care about those who may be reaching a breaking point.
“I think that’s a really important message to send,” Rosenthal said. “And it was one we didn’t want to wait to send until next year. And I think now there is a greater focus on suicide, and I hope people are more encouraged to get involved and speak up if they are worried about someone they know. And I believe it’s going to give way to much more programming around awareness and prevention in 2021.”
Rosenthal said this escalating effort has to go way beyond just “checking the box and saying we did a couple of webinars.”
“I think we need a sustained approach, reminding people there are resources and places they can go if they need support,” he said. “And I hope it empowers average citizens — you don’t need a psychology degree to reach out and ask someone if they’re okay, or to look after people. It’s an uncomfortable subject, and a lot of people don’t know how to bring it up, but that’s why trainings like we started with these presentations are important.”
Crick Owen said Tom Steen, a past board chair and current education chair of the Connecticut chapter of AFSP, gave the virtual presentations.
“We’re hopeful those attending the presentations will share the knowledge they learned with others and recommend that they attend future presentations,” the selectman said. “This is a very important and hard discussion.
“As Tom said in his presentation, his son died by suicide, which ultimately led him to get involved in AFSP,” she said. “Tom wanted to help and did not want to see another family go through what his family did. I feel the same exact way having lost my nephew to suicide 13 years ago.”
Reduce The Stigma
Wiedemann said she was very happy with both presentations. "But honestly, the first thought that came to mind is, we are just beginning," she said. "Maureen has lots of ideas. This is something that needs to be discussed often, ideas shared always. With the holidays fast approaching, we need to remember to reach out. Make those calls, send texts, use Facebook. Stay connected and always check on one another." Crick Owen agreed, saying as a community, “we need to talk about suicide and reduce the stigma. We talk about cancer. We talk about heart disease. Why can’t we talk about suicide or mental health?”
She said the program was effective in helping attendees understand how someone might initiate what could be a life-saving intervention.
“If you notice someone is not smiling, ask if they are okay. If you notice someone has been absent from your knitting class, give them a call and find out if they need help or want to talk. Start the conversation,” she said. “We all need a trusted friend, colleague, family member, teacher, or friendly voice that we can talk to.”
Crick Owen and Wiedemann expressed gratitude to town and school officials along with various department heads for their support of this initiative.
“We plan to have virtual presentations in 2021 and move to in-person events when permitted,” Crick Owen added.
Rodrigue said these presentations complimented a comprehensive awareness and prevention initiative already in place in the local school system, which has suffered its share of suicide-related tragedies.
“I am a mom, an educator, and a district leader — so suicide is something that hits home with me in both personal and professional ways,” she said. “Just this year, four suicides of young teens occurred in neighboring districts, and the deep impact it has not only for the families, but the entire school community is devastating.”
Rodrigue said suicide is always shocking, painful, “and it leaves so many searching for answers. What did we do wrong? Could we have intervened? Were there signs? Were there adequate support systems in place?”
She said the day before she hosted the second Talk Saves Lives installment, the State Department of Education sent out a public alert on youth suicide to all superintendents to share, which included ways to support young students with the trauma they are experiencing currently, not only due to COVID, but the social, economic, and political landscape as well.
“At the school level, knowing the warning signs and training our staff to be trusted adults and caregivers is equally important,” Rodrigue said during her introductory remarks.
“Our Signs of Suicide program, anonymous alert app for secondary students, mindfulness training, and our social-emotional programs are the ways we have emphasized appropriate monitoring of students’ well-being,” she added, “but I know we can always do more as a call to action.”
Learn more about suicide prevention, how to host an AFSP activity, to become a facilitator, or share your experiences by visiting afsp.org.