By Alex Emslie
SF State Xpress
Natalie Meany cheerfully cracked jokes and bantered with the rest of her team, Team Mean, at the 9th Annual Out of Darkness Walk held Sept. 23 to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“There’s no crying here,” she said, smiling, “I formed this team — I did it for closure. After my father’s suicide, I got okay with it enough to do this.” Meany said her father died in 2008.
The 15-member Team Mean raised about $4,000 for the AFSP before the walk on Sept. 23, and Natalie’s sister, Megan Meany, was the most successful fundraiser of the group, collecting $1,560 through a social media campaign. Total donations reached more than $90,000 at the end of the walk.
“Last night, I had a girl who I hadn’t talked to since elementary school come to my house and give me $100,” Megan Meany said. “She said, ‘Now you reached your goal,’ and then she left.”
That kind of community support is a big deal for the approximately 1,000 people gathered at the Out of Darkness Walk. The Greater San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the AFSP has been fighting the stigma of mental illness and suicide since it was founded in 2004 and held its first Out of Darkness Walk.
“I’m not sure why there is such a stigma,” said Valerie Kovacovich, area director for the AFSP Bay Area chapter. “There’s a lot of shame associated with mental health issues, but when I tell people that I work with suicide prevention, it’s such a high percentage of people who say ‘Oh my God, I know someone who has committed suicide.”
About 100 San Francisco residents take their own lives each year, according to the city’s medical examiner, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, according to SF State.
Dr. James Lyda, a UCSF psychologist, explained a new Interactive Screening Program initiated at UCSF in April and recently implemented at all UC campuses. The program is a web-based interactive method of outreach for students with depression and other mental health problems that put them at risk for suicide. Confidentiality is a hurdle that can keep many people from seeking help for depression, Lyda said, and ISP “harnesses the anonymity of the internet” to reach out to at-risk students.
College students are not necessarily a population at-risk for suicide as a whole, Lyda said, “but even one suicide is worth the effort to prevent, and this program is aimed at students who wouldn’t come in otherwise. We want to get to students who fall through the cracks.”
ISP works by surveying all incoming students to a university, identifying those who may be depressed or suicidal, and then individually reaching out to those students through a school’s counseling department. The entire process is anonymous until students decide to reach out to counselors themselves.
The program is already working. Lyda told the story of a UC student who received an invitation to take the survey when it was first unveiled in April. The student was considering taking her own life, but she was put in touch with counselors, got treatment, and is now no longer suicidal.
SF State is a recipient of the same Student Mental Health Initiative Grant that funded ISP at UCSF, Lyda said, and State may be investigating implementing the program.
Nine California residents die by suicide every day, on average, according to the state’s Department of Mental Health. Suicide remains a complex and intractable cause of death across the country, despite a national effort undertaken in 2001 to move suicide prevention out of the mental health field and into the broader public health field.
“Every 15 minutes, someone passes away from suicide,” said Blake Simons, an intern at AFSP and a UC Berkeley political science, American studies, and business major. Simons said his best friend committed suicide about a year ago, and he struggles with depression, “but you wouldn’t know that unless I told you,” he said, adding, “These issues can affect anyone.”
The stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues in general has diminished in the 25 years since her son took his own life, said Shirly Kaminsky, a retired nurse and Sunole, Calif., resident who helped found the Bay Area chapter of AFSP. The organization was founded nationally in 1987, the same year as her son’s death, Kaminsky said.
“Suicide used to be viewed as a crime, or at least a character flaw, but really it’s a disease of the brain,” she said.
Research by the American Association of Suicidology suggests that every suicide or suicide attempt impacts at least six other people. Many participants in the Out of Darkness walk, grouped into teams from ranging in size from small families to groups of half a dozen or more, wore the images of loved ones lost to suicide with messages like “Dearly Beloved,” or “In Remembrance.”
“Being so depressed, it can feel like there’s not help, but there is,” Simons said. “Mental health issues can affect anyone, but I learned it’s something that’s not talked about enough. Through more advocacy and more awareness, we can change the statistics.”
For SF State students, social media is one likely place suicide risk factors may present themselves. Online bullying can be a contributing factor to suicide, according to San Francisco Suicide Prevention, but social media networks can also serve as powerful support systems.
According to SF State statistics, 70 percent of suicide victims tell someone before taking their own life, and social media is increasingly used to post a cry for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline teamed up with Facebook to create a way for users to help someone who is posting suicidal content. By clicking the “Remove” X at the top-right of every Facebook post, then clicking “Report” and selecting “Violence or harmful behavior,” then “suicidal content,” the post will be sent to Facebook’s Safety Team, who will review the post and may put the user in touch with suicide prevention professionals.
For students concerned about a friend who may be depressed, Dr. Lyda offered some advice.
“Talk to that friend and listen,” he said. “Beyond that, almost every university has a counseling service not only for students who who need help but also for those who want to help other students. They can tell you what to say and how to approach it. It’s not something that anybody should have to do alone.”
A version of this story was published in the SF State Golden Gate Xpress on Sept. 26, 2012.