Let’s talk about this – it may save a life

Let’s talk about this – it may save a life

This is National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10-16). We all know what suicide is. We hear about it. It’s something that happens to other people. I remember being touched by a documentary called The Bridge many years ago. I thought about it a lot when I had the incredible opportunity to run over the Golden Gate years later. I could never have imagined then how I would be touched by suicide.

WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

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Driving Talk

Driving Talk

Yesterday my daughter celebrated her 17th birthday. She took – and passed! – her drivers test and is now a licensed driver (as if parenting wasn’t a gray hair creating, anxiety producing fiasco that constantly left me in a state of self-doubt already). She took a friend out to dinner last night – under her own power. This morning she drove herself to lacrosse practice (while I got to sleep in a little longer!). Mom is no longer needed for drop offs or pick-ups. So here I am somewhere between enjoying  my own freedom, and missing her; being happy for her because I remember the new life that suddenly enveloped me as a driver; and yet being worried because I remember, too.  We hope, as parents, that we have given our children all the tools and skills they need to survive in the wild alone, understanding that there comes a time when they are responsible for themselves and we can’t possibly protect them any more from the mistakes they will make. We hope – we pray – that those mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth, not pathways to tragedy.

My daughter’s new freedom came just a few days after she told me they had announced that another graduate of her high school lost his battle with heroin addiction. This young man, who just a short year ago walked the same halls as my daughter, was now a statistic in this tragic epidemic that has engulfed New Jersey. My heart broke for the boy’s parents. Having lived through the loss of both of my parents, other close friends and relatives, and even my husband, I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of despair that one could feel by the loss of a child.

This finally stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it hit closer to home – literally and in its timing. This is not the first tragedy like this to touch our small town. I have cried for other parents before. A local parent wrote a book in 2014 about her son’s death from a heroin overdose at his home not far from us. My friend is involved in supporting an organization, Michael’s Voice, whose mission is to educate, give hope and remove the shame and stigma from people affected by opiate addiction. She has shared their information on FaceBook; but until now, I never visited their website. Today, I can see so clearly the link between suicide – which touched my life personally – and addiction. And how we are missing the point as a community and letting our kids down.

On the Michael’s Voice website, Michael’s mother writes, “It was an accident. Lured, by a cunning drug that destroys impulse control and crushed, under the shame and stigma of being addicted…..He used alone and died.” She understands the “stigma of being an addict.” Addiction is a mental health issue, not a crime. We teach our kids in the 5th grade about drug and alcohol resistance, by telling them that drugs and alcohol are bad. By high school that “education” no longer matters and too many kids who don’t possess the skills to cope with the increased stress of acedemia or athletic performance, turn to drugs. What teenager cares about what a police officer told them in a 5th Grade DARE program at that point?

The “War on Drugs” has failed. There are countless statistics showing that treating drug addiction as a crime, isn’t working.  Google it and you’ll find a plethora of articles backing up that statement. Here’s one that provides a good summary: Why the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working. And I could write an entire book on children as collateral damage in the “war on drugs” because of the results of having a parent in prison due to a drug offense. But those aren’t our kids, right? So let’s keep the discussion on “our kids.” The majority of heroin related deaths in New Jersey are now people under the age of 30; the number of heroin users seeking treatment in New Jersey who are white has increased 20% in recent years (Herointown, N.J.: The state’s heroin crisis in 9 startling statistics, NJ.com). While New Jersey is (thankfully?) ranked among the lowest states for suicides in the United States, suicide is a leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. We don’t have a drug abuse problem, or a suicide problem. What we have collectively is a mental health problem. In the article about the young man’s death this week, they quoted his last Tweet, “There has to be somewhere better than here.”

Our communities continue to pour money into an ineffective program and ‘crime prevention,” while a huge stigma still exists around mental heath; while our kids lack the tools to cope with life in an increasingly stressful world. I am not going to pretend that I have done anything right, or that my child doesn’t have the potential to be a statistic. We can’t judge other parents, or say “not my kid.” I know all too well, as a cancer survivor and suicide loss survivor, that yes, the unthinkable does happen – in our towns, and in our own homes. Fostering open and honest, non-judgmental, communications with our kids, is probably the most important method, but we can’t do it alone. And lessoning the stigma around mental health issues – including addiction – is a necessary component to healing and reducing these statistics.  We must start talking about that in our communities.

Since one size doesn’t fit all, there has to be a whole bunch of programs and the schools and other community organizations need to get behind them. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am volunteering with the Let Me Run program for elementary and middle school boys (similar to Girls on the Run). Some of the objectives of the program include “being able to identify and express a wide range of emotions; learning to be a better friend and identifying true friends; defining success and competition in healthy ways, expanding knowledge on various topics so they can make better physical, emotional and mental health choices” – essentially giving these boys the tools they need to cope with life as it becomes increasingly challenging and stressful. If I hadn’t volunteered to be one of two necessary coaches for the Wednesday/Friday session or if the local Lutheran Church hadn’t agreed to lend some indoor space (for inclement weather), this program simply wouldn’t have happened. When the lead volunteer coach who founded our program approached the schools some months back, she was told that a classroom could be rented at $75 a day! The program doesn’t have that kind of a budget. I just don’t understand why the schools wouldn’t want to fully embrace a program like this.

When my daughter was in the 6th grade, having enjoyed the DARE program the year before, she wanted to participate in the “DARE Club.” She was told they couldn’t accept her unless I was willing to volunteer with the program. I couldn’t. I was working full-time in New York City. So she missed out. I don’t know that it ultimately made a difference, since that program has been deemed so ineffective, but we should not be denying our children opportunities to participate in programs that can potentially provide them the tools and skills they need. And most of all, we need to start letting our kids know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on in their heads, what to do when something doesn’t feel right – to us, to their teachers, to their friends. We need to create a culture where their voice will not be met with judgement. We need to demand from our government that financial issues aren’t an impediment to getting the help anyone needs.

The high school provides a driver’s education class as part of the health curriculum sophomore year. In order to get a learner’s permit at 16, the State of New Jersey requires six hours of behind the wheel education with an accredited driving school. There are countless hours of practice driving with an adult, and then the requirement of passing the road test before being issued a probationary license. They are very well prepared – equipped with the tools and skills they need – to be competent drivers when they pull out of the driveway for that first time alone. And just in case, we put them in the safest cars the auto industry has ever produced, with all-wheel drive, anti-lock breaks, and airbags, and we require them by law to wear a seatbelt. Yet, mental health issues – addiction and suicide – continue to be a leading cause of death for our children that we don’t even want to talk about. Let’s start talking!

IMG_6211My car. Without me. On the road beyond my driveway. Ramsey, New Jersey. April, 2017.

My Story: Part 2

My Story: Part 2

This is the story I published on LinkedIn last year, as it was shared by Kelly Anderson in her blog Red Head on the Run, on November 16, 2015:

Not Your Typical Breast Cancer Story

I was planning to run the 2014 NJ Marathon. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 weeks into the 16 week training program, so I did what any newly diagnosed woman would do, I took to the Internet to research my disease. I found a lot of stuff that scared the crap out of me, so I registered for the Chicago Marathon instead. Figured I needed a plan B.

I did get to run NJ on April 27 (missed a BQ by 2 min and 50 seconds) and had my surgery 10 days later. I had a lumpectomy. All came back good. I took 5 weeks off from running and scheduled 4 weeks of radiation over the summer. I decided to defer Chicago rather than try to train through all of that. I finally ran Chicago this year! I missed a BQ again, but raised almost $6000 for charity. Here is my complete story which explains why I didn’t raise money for breast cancer…….

I am sharing my story with you as a way of creating awareness for something not talked about enough. I hope it can save a life.

I’m a runner. I often run to reduce stress and keep my sanity. I ran a lot in 2014. This year, the Chicago Marathon completed my fifth full marathon. Like the other four, I had decided to use my participation in this event to raise money for charity. In the past, I have raised a significant amount of money for a variety of charities that meant something to me; maybe because I worked for the organization and had a really good understanding of their work, or maybe because a friend or family member was personally touched by the cause. This time, the cause is more personal.

In the Spring of 2014 I became a breast cancer survivor, but I’m not raising money for breast cancer. A lot of people raise money for breast cancer. I am thankful for that. Because of the funds raised for breast cancer I received an early diagnosis. I had access to great medical care and treatment.

My cancer was diagnosed at a time when I was experiencing a level of stress that can only be described as toxic. In recent years I had lost both of my parents and a close Aunt and Uncle. I had managed the care and personal affairs of both my mother and aunt – both diagnosed with alzheimer’s – in their final years of life. I worked stressful jobs with horrendous commutes because they provided the resources I needed to support my family. My husband had been laid off from a job in late 2003 and never went back to work. I was doing everything I could to keep it together for my family.

I believe, based on what I read, that stress played a large role in my cancer. After my surgery I began counseling, something I would never have considered in the past; but I didn’t think I would be much good to my family if I didn’t get help. I had to pay out-of-pocket. It wasn’t covered by insurance, but I didn’t care. I would make sacrifices in other areas. When I was the CEO of Gilda’s Club Northern New Jersey (a cancer support organization), I learned how important social and emotional support is when living with cancer. I also learned that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t just happen to the individual but it affects the whole family. I urged my husband to seek support as well.

I completed my last radiation treatment on August 19, 2014 and I’m now happy to report I’m cancer free (and keeping my fingers crossed that I remain so). After going through a cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment, I never imagined that anything else could change my life the way that experience did; but I was wrong.

October 6, 2014 began like any other day. I dropped my daughter off at school (she had just started her freshman year in high school), my husband and I dealt with some house issues and financial concens in the morning and then I was off to Starbucks to do some work on my laptop and meet a business colleague. When I returned home a little after 5:00 that evening, I found a note taped to the garage door. It read: “I am in the garage. Probably dead. Don’t let (our daughter) see me. Love, Chris.” My husband of 21 years and 4 months, my daughter’s father, had committed suicide.

It was only then that I realized that he too had a disease. Mental illness is a disease; but, like in his case, it often goes undiagnosed and untreated until it’s too late. There were times over the years that I knew something was wrong. In the months leading up to his death I urged him to seek help, but he didn’t want to go to a therapist because, unlike my breast cancer treatments, it wasn’t covered by insurance. He felt we didn’t have any more money to spend on something like that and I really had no idea how bad he was.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States; more people die of suicide than in car accidents. In 2010, the total number of suicide deaths in the United States was 38,364. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. In 2009 it was the 7th leading cause of death for males, and the 16th leading cause of death for females. Suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans, aged 35 to 64 increased nearly 30 percent. The largest increases were among men in their 50s, and women 60 to 64, at rates of 50 and 60 percent, respectively. Older adults are disproportionately likely to die by suicide.

So much needs to be done to advocate for better care and treatment of mental illness, to educate the public about the warning signs of suicide, and to provide support to families in crisis. I think it can be argued that mental health issues are at the root of so many of society’s problems; contributing to other diseases like cancer and heart disease to being the issue behind substance abuse, and gun violence.

Breast cancer was a lot less treatable – and survivable – when people decided to raise money to change that. It’s time to put that kind of power behind mental health. We can make a difference. Running the Chicago Marathon this year was an effort to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It is their goal to reduce the annual suicide rate in the United States 20% by 2025. They fund suicide prevention research, provide education to create a culture that is smart about mental health and they provide evidence-based programs for schools, colleges and hospitals. They advocate for policies that will improve mental health services and reduce suicide. And they provide support to those who struggle with thoughts of suicide and they also help loss survivors heal.

I am running the NJ Marathon on Sunday.  With some more of the emotional baggage behind me, I want to give the BQ one more shot. I am also still raising money for AFSP and hoping to reach that goal too. The link to my fundraising page: http://afsp.donordrive.com/campaign/Connolly.

Most importantly, learn everything you can about preventing suicide and advocate for better mental health. Thank you!

356534_208268929_XLarge2015 Chicago Marathon Finisher