I’m Listening!

Sacramento Region, CA  |  By Sal Arrigo, Jr.
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'Send Silence Packing' toured at California State University, Sacramento; the backpacks represent college students who have committed suicide.

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Suicide Prevention Awareness Program

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - In the 1990’s there was a television sitcom named “Frasier” about a radio psychiatrist who greeted his callers with the phrase “I’m listening.” Although it was a comedy, the show did focus on real-life topics and relationships and often the discussions led to one question:  what is the root cause of your issue?

Suicide is a very real issue in this country. We hear that a person “seemed just fine to me,” but that was only on the surface. To be quite frank on why I am writing about this subject is easy – I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I can relate to all the buildup and emotions on why someone would take their life.

Suicide, the act of intentionally causing your own death, is listed as a top ten cause of death in the United States, according to a 2017 Center for Disease Control report. So, I ask, are you listening when the person who committed suicide remained silent up to the end?

Recently, California State University, Sacramento hosted the Send Silence Packing national tour, a program of the Active Minds organization that brings awareness to college students who take their own lives. Founded by Alison Malmon when she was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania after the suicide of her older brother, and only sibling, Brian, she started the Active Minds organization. According to the organization’s website, Active Mind’s purpose is “to reflect the organization’s focus on action and student advocacy in mental health.” They have been doing this since 2003.

Each year, as stated on the Active Minds website, Send Silence Packing visits 30-40 schools and communities. The all-day exhibit raises mental health awareness, inspires action for suicide prevention, connects viewers to mental health resources, and jump starts action.

Send Silence Packing catalyzes conversations in a way that contributes to a community’s overall positive climate for mental health. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. The Active Minds website, www.activeminds.org has a simple, and yet very powerful message: “Are you listening?”

I spoke with Barbara Gillogly Ph.D., a Developmental Psychologist and licensed Family Therapist, about her experiences with clients who discussed suicide. “I cannot tell them not to do it (suicide), but I can listen and validate their feelings.” Dr. Gillogly continued, “People just want to vent and be heard, and not be judged. I listen to the emotion behind the words and find people just want to talk.”
I asked Dr. Gillogly what she tells someone who has lost a loved one or friend to suicide. “Go to a support group because they have been there.” It is not pretty to go through the grieving process regarding suicide as this is the toughest guilt for the survivors: could I have done something to help?”

I asked Barbara if there are any signs that are tipping points to someone taking their own life. “A person may start to give away their personal items, or they slowly start retreating from life in general” she said. My initial thought after interviewing Dr. Gillogy was that I wanted to find out more about local support groups. As it turned out, I found a person who has actually been to one, and provided me with a personal and tragic story. Sharon Ruffner lost her brother Eddie to suicide many years ago. Sharon told me that Eddie struggled with his addiction to prescription drugs and had been in some trouble with the law. Sharon told me, “Eddie was brilliant; he was a gifted pianist, artist and scientist.”

Although Eddie struggled in his life, his sister never stopped loving him and when Eddie would call and blame Sharon for an array of problems she did not create, Sharon always told her brother, “I love you and if you need help I am here for you.” It was soon after that Eddie overdosed on the prescription drugs. One question haunts Sharon: “Did Eddie really mean to do this or just happened to take extra pills by mistake?” As with my interview with Dr. Gillogly, Sharon agreed that when a family member or friend commits suicide it is difficult to comprehend. “What signs did I not recognize?” is a question that Sharon replays over and over. One piece of advice Sharon gives to other people in a similar situation is that you “never get over it; you just travel through the grief.” Eddie’s mother, Norma, went into a deep depression which Sharon described as “having her right arm cut off.” Although her Mom felt this way, Sharon said to me “I never felt devastation; I just tried to help my Mom.”

I asked Sharon what kept her going after Eddie took his life. “I kept myself busy by taking some classes and learning some professional skills. It eventually led to a career position with the San Juan Unified School District.” Sharon did tell me, “you need to allow people to help you, and that grief is an incredible personal journey. You do need to take your time to grieve.” In order to help ease the pain, Sharon said that she copes to this day by taking piano lessons to honor her brother. She also goes to Pacifica Beach in the San Francisco Bay Area and throws a rose into the water because “it was one of Eddie’s favorite places to go.”

Sharon presented me with a newsletter from the Friends for Survival, a nationwide non-profit organization with a Sacramento chapter. The mission statement says, “We are dedicated to providing a variety of peer support services that comfort those in grief, suicide grief support, encourage healing and growth, foster the development of skills to cope with a loss and educate the community regarding the impact of suicide.” In addition, the organization states, “The loving outreach of Friends for Survival can bridge the gap between despair and renewed hope. Those whose loss is recent can lean upon the shoulders of those who have made progress in the difficult task of working through grief after a suicide death.”

The Sacramento chapter of Friends for Survival can be reached at 916-392-0664 or 800-646-7322. Their website is www.ffs@truevine.net.

Personally, I came away from this story not with an ending, but a beginning. There is so much the general public needs to understand about this very real societal issue. I intend to continue writing more about this subject in the future with the goal of helping one person or one family. It is that important!

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7) at 1-800-273-8255 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.