Franklin James Cook

Archive for the ‘Stigma’ Category

Alaska Army Post Battles Stigma to Prevent Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on February 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

In a post last year titled “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides,” I wrote that the most important question for suicide prevention advocates is “What is military (and civilian) leadership doing … to decisively lessen the stigma against help-seeking that is killing so many of those whose sacrifices make our freedom possible?”

Today, in “Combat Deaths — At Home after the War,” Anchorage Daily News reporter Richard Mauer takes a look at two current developments at Fort Richardson, Alaska, designed to counter the military’s “culture of stigma.”

First, shortly after assuming command of the U.S. Army in Alaska last fall, Maj. Gen. William Troy learned of a battalion-level decision not to give full honors to a soldier at Ford Richardson who had died by suicide, and Troy made it a policy throughout his command to treat suicide fatalities in the same way other deaths are treated.

“When you do a memorial service in a different way [for a suicide victim], I think that you’re adding to the stigmatization of a soldier who has a behavioral health problem. You don’t mean to, but what you’re doing is, you’re making it look like it’s his fault,” Troy said. “We should be memorializing his service to the nation, his service in combat. He’s a volunteer, a member of a free nation who came and joined our ranks to defend this country, and that’s what we should be memorializing, not passing judgment on the manner of his death.”

Second, soldiers soon to return to Fort Richardson will be the first brigade-size unit (3,000-5,000 soldiers) to test the Army’s Virtual Behavioral Health Pilot Program.

[The program] will screen every … soldier from the commander, Col. Michael Howard, and his sergeant major down to each private. First they’ll describe their experiences in a questionnaire, including any traumatic brain injury they might have suffered, then enter a booth for a private video conference with a mental health professional. The on-line professional can make an immediate referral, including appointment, with a local counselor or therapist, Troy said.

A U.S. Army news release says the objectives of the Virtual Behavioral Health Pilot Program are …

… to provide uniform contact, via face-to-face or the VBHP, with all redeploying Soldiers, in order to identify care requirements early, and help promote a cultural change of Soldiers’ views of behavioral health.

The support of Army leadership in suicide prevention initiatives is evidenced in a Jan. 8 memo issued by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff — who was responding to the report of eight suicide fatalaties in the first eight days of the new year — by asking the Army’s NCOs and other frontline supervisors …

… to troop the line, walk through the motor-pool, stop by the barracks, eat a meal in the dining facility, and visit the guard post at midnight. Look each and every Soldier in the eye. Convey the message that each one is valued by our Army, their families and friends, and our Nation. Remind Soldiers that their Army remains committed to help, support, and assist them to meet hardships head-on, no matter the struggle, stressor, or challenge.

Here are a few SPNAC posts in the past year related to suicide in the military:

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Could Policeman’s Suicide Have Been in the Line of Duty?

In Grief, Policy, Stigma on January 29, 2010 at 4:34 am

Paul and Janice McCarthy pose with their children for a family portrait.

In “The Police Suicide Problem” in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, freelance reporter Julia Dahl probes the connection between trauma on the job and suicide by telling the story of Janice McCarthy’s crusade to have her husband’s suicide classified as a death suffered “in the line of duty.”

Janice took her case to the state retirement board, and in June 2007 her husband’s death was ruled “accidental.” The decision meant she would collect 72 percent of his pension (an “in the line of duty” death would have meant 100 percent and an additional one-time payment of nearly $100,000), but more important, it drew a line connecting his on-the-job injuries to his suicide, opening the door for what Janice McCarthy really wants — her husband’s death to be ruled “line of duty” and his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The issue is both complex and emotional on all sides, for in police culture giving one’s life “in the line of duty” is the highest sacrifice an officer can make.

Most of the police mental health workers [the reporter] spoke with thought the idea of a “line-of-duty suicide” was intriguing, but they weren’t exactly ready to sign on to a new classification. [Kevin Gilmartin, a retired police officer and clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon], says he think it could create a victim mentality, and Dr. Audrey Honig, who is a former chair of the international chiefs’ association’s Psychological Services Section, says she thinks the better tack would be to lobby for recognition of some suicides within existing line-of-duty classifications …

Almost no one seems to think that there is much chance of getting the federal government to alter line-of-duty qualification rules any time soon. Partly, it’s a financial issue; more line-of-duty deaths would mean bigger payouts to surviving families. And then there’s the stigma of suicide.

[John Violanti, a former New York trooper who is now a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo], says that in police culture it’s considered a “coward’s way out,” and line-of-duty benefits are reserved for “heroic” deaths.

Janice McCarthy, though, sees a clear connection between on-the-job injuries her husband suffered when a stolen bus was driven into his cruiser years ago, the post traumatic stress from that incident, and the emotional and mental downward spiral that ended in Captain Paul McCarthy’s suicide.

“The line-of-duty designation should be sacred,” she [says]. “For an officer to give his life is the ultimate sacrifice, but for a suicide to be categorically eliminated from consideration is unjust. Paul’s legs healed, but his brain did not. Instead, he suffered for 13 more years. His memory deserves to be honored for that struggle, and his children deserve to see their father’s name in its rightful place on that wall.”

Captain McCarthy is survived by three children, ages 12, 17 and 19.

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Related SPNAC posts:

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Beliefnet Blogger’s Mission Is Healing Depression

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on November 13, 2009 at 5:54 am

Borchard-BookTherese J. Borchard, founder of the blog “Beyond Blue” offers an explanation in Huffington Post for why she is on a personal mission to help people who have depression.

After trying 23 medication combinations, working with 7 psychiatrists, participating in two inpatient hospital psychiatric programs, and attempting every alternative therapy out there, I made a bargain with God.

“I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping people who suffer from mood disorders,” I promised, “if I ever wake up and want to be alive.”

Miraculously that day did come … the morning I woke up and thought about coffee.

So here I am. With my mission: to educate folks about mental illness and to offer support to those who, like myself, suffer from mood disorders.

Borchard is the survivor of her aunt’s suicide and a tireless crusader for better treatment and understanding for people with mood disorders and for the cause of suicide prevention. She has a book coming out in January, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, which she says was written

So that others might find a seed of hope in my story, and be able to hang on for one day longer. So that anyone who struggles with anxiety or depression–even in the slightest way–might find a companion in me, some consolation in the incredibly personal details of my story, and a bit of hope to lighten an often dark and lonely place.

It’s about my end of the bargain.

[Editor’s note: I can’t recommend the book without having read it, but over the past year I have read her blog and do recommend it, especially but not exclusively for people who are religious, which is the point of view from which she writes. FJC]

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Army Commanders’ Caregiving Plays Role in Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on July 13, 2009 at 7:59 am


By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

A USA Today story by reporter Gregg Zoroya focuses on Army commanders “failing at the day-to-day task of monitoring troubled young soldiers in their barracks back home, which is helping push suicides to record numbers.”

The Army has built a fighting force second to none, says Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, [director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force], but “we have young leaders who have not been trained in the art of … just taking care of soldiers,” particularly after they return home from combat.

McGuire’s findings come after three months spent reviewing records of Army suicides, talking to soldiers and commanders, and visiting installations throughout the country, she said.

Here are the annual U.S. Army suicide numbers, which were reported in an article this January at, citing Army sources:
2004: 64
2005: 87
2006: 102
2007: 115
2008: 128 (with additional deaths still under investigation)
2008: 143 (according to today’s USA Today article)

Here is the latest report, from a U.S. Department of Defense news release just last week:

There have been 88 reported active-duty suicides in the Army during calendar year 2009. Of these, 54 have been confirmed, and 34 are pending determination of manner of death.

“Most suspected suicides are later confirmed as suicides, records show,” states today’s USA Today article.

Concerning the role of Army commanders, it states

Managing soldiers at home is different than in combat, McGuire says. Often, commanders can lead troops in battle but lack the skills to monitor troops closely at home.

The Army’s failure to police risky behaviors has made it harder to identify and seek help for the smaller numbers of soldiers who may be suicidal, she says. “(It’s) talking to soldiers. ‘Who’s the loner? Who’s isolated? What are you guys doing this weekend?’ ” McGuire says.

The Army’s review of records on suicides shows that

About two-thirds of suicides occurred in or around installations … Half are among combat veterans. The other half are soldiers who never deployed. About one-third of suicides occurred in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

David Rudd, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Utah, a leading authority on civilian and military suicides, points out that improved caregiving by military leaders is only part of the picture.

The longer the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, Rudd says, the more likely it is that soldiers who have seen combat will kill themselves. Also, young men, in the military and civilian life, are often reluctant to seek help, he says.

SPNAC has weighed in on the topic of suicide in the military several times (please type the word “military” into the search box below), and the post “Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides,” hones in on the same concern Rudd emphasizes above, help-seeking, especially among young men in the military. The post asserts  that the most vital question at hand is this:

What is military (and civilian) leadership doing –- besides issuing orders, which is a necessary but not sufficient step — to decisively lessen the stigma against help-seeking that is killing so many of those whose sacrifices make our freedom possible?

Although I might rephrase the question to be less melodramatic if I were to compose it all over again today, I continue to adamantly believe that a bold, insightful, decisive, culture-changing look at stigma around help-seeking in the military could carry the battle against suicide.

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Catholic “Day for Life” in U.K. Will Focus on Suicide

In Grief, Prevention, Stigma on July 9, 2009 at 7:40 am

UPDATE 07/10/2009: A London Telegraph story today features an interview with the Rt Rev Bernard Longley, who explains that “church teaching on suicide had not changed but its understanding of mental health had altered.”

“Suicide is a grave sin, but an individual must be mentally healthy to be fully aware that what they are doing is a sin. When a person commits suicide, they are generally so clouded by confusion and despair as to be no longer in full control of their mental faculties. God does not condemn anyone not fully aware of what they are doing: His mercy is without end.”

Bishop Longley said the families and friends of people who committed suicide suffered “acutely” and suicide should never be romanticised or encouraged.

But he said attempting suicide was “typically” the act of a desperate person and it should be greeted with compassion rather than with blame.

Original Post 07/09/2009: The Bishops’ Conferences of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Scotland, England  and Wales are working together this year during the annual “Day for Life” observance to take an in-depth look at the church’s point of view about suicide. According to a press release,

Day for Life — the day in the Church’s year dedicated to celebrating the dignity of life from conception to natural death — will this year focus on the theme of suicide. The main emphasis of Day for Life in 2009 will be on the pastoral dimensions of this difficult and sensitive subject.
It will highlight why the Church believes that every life is worth living and look at the reasons why people contemplate suicide, including acute mental illness and the possible spiritual factors involved. It will also point towards the support that the professional services can bring and hopefully help to reduce the stigma too often associated with mental illness and depression.

The online coverage of the topic includes  a blog section featuring posts from “people whose lives have been touched by suicide and mental illness.”

[Editor’s note: Does anyone know if a similar observance is happening (or has happened) in North America? Please comment below.]
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Canada’s Prime Minister Eulogizes MP Lost to Suicide

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on July 6, 2009 at 9:10 am

A momentous occasion unfolded on Saturday when a head of state spoke both insightfully and eloquently about depression and suicide. The occasion, sadly, was the funeral of Dave Batters, a Member of Parliament who died by suicide the end of June, and the speaker the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, who told Batters’ family and the other mourners gathered in Regina, Saskatchewan,

We need to know that mental illness like Dave’s is shockingly common in our society. It affects the great and the small alike despite the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Other politicians have carried the same burden. In fact, perhaps the two greatest English-speaking politicians in history, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, struggled with depression.

Harper also spoke of Batters with an emphasis on how he lived not just on how he died, a point many survivors of suicide suicide feel is missed by society as they grieve the loss of their loved ones.

This we know: in his struggle, Dave achieved a life worth living, a simple but profound truth, a goal we all aspire to, and he reached it. Dave’s family can take great pride in this.

For Dave made a significant contribution to the lives of others. Another great goal in life, and one he achieved so ably.

When he ran for public office, Dave did not do so for selfish reasons. He responded to the tragedy of another, the murder of his friend Michelle. He heard, and answered a call to service and he did so with conviction, distinction and success.

Depression didn’t stop that. It was his decency that drove him forward, that defined him in life, that will define him in death.

The Prime Minister also reached out to everyone who suffers from depression or who has been touched by suicide, declaring that “Dave is not alone” and recognizing the thousands of others who die by suicide every year.

The science has progressed, but we still don’t know enough about depression, and less about suicide.

But we know this much: depression can strike the sturdiest of souls. It cares not how much you have achieved nor how much you have to live for …

Unlike its myth, depression is not a function of character except that to fight it summons a strength of character, and a great strength of character like Dave’s to fight it as long as he did. Dave dealt with his illness head-on. That takes courage.

To Dave’s family, we mourn and share your loss. But so too do we share your pride in Dave’s life and in the greater good he served through elected office and through his public battle with depression from which we can all learn.

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Interfaith Dialogue Results in Consensus Statement on Suicide

In Prevention, Stigma on June 5, 2009 at 11:48 pm

“Consensus Statement on Suicide and Suicide Prevention from an Interfaith Dialogue”

The following statement was developed at an Interfaith Suicide Prevention Dialogue held March 12-13, 2008 in Rockville, Maryland. The dialogue was sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and was funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The participants included representatives from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities.

Life is a sacred gift, and suicide is a desperate act by one who views life as intolerable. Such self-destruction is never condoned, but faith communities increasingly support, rather than condemn, the person who contemplates or engages in suicidal behavior. They acknowledge that mental and substance use disorders, along with myriad life stressors, contribute significantly to the risk of suicide. And they reach out compassionately to the person who attempts suicide and to families and friends who have been touched by a suicide or suicide attempt. This increasingly charitable understanding finds agreement between the historic precepts of faith and a contemporary understanding of illness and health. It renders no longer appropriate the practice of harshly judging those who have attempted or died by suicide.

Life is a complex journey viewed through different lenses by different faith groups. But the varied eyes of all our traditions increasingly see the great potential of people of faith to prevent the tragedy of suicide. Spiritual leaders and faith communities, and now the research community, know that practices of faith and spirituality can promote healthy living and provide pathways through human suffering, be it mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical.

Faith communities can work to prevent suicide simply by enhancing many of the activities that are already central to their very nature. They already foster cultures and norms that are lifepreserving. By providing perspective and social support to their members and the broader community, they compassionately help people navigate the great struggles of life and find a sustainable sense of hope, meaning, purpose, and even joy in life.

The time is right for the life-enhancing strengths that are the foundations of our most ancient faith traditions to find application in preventing suffering and loss from suicide. Suicide prevention will take a quantum leap forward as members of faith communities gain understanding and the necessary, culturally competent skills to minister to people and communities at heightened risk for suicide and to support the healing of those who have either struggled with suicide themselves or survived the suicide of someone they love.

Common Themes

  • All faith groups have a strong reverence for life. Regardless of what might happen after a person dies, this life is precious and a gift to be treasured.
  • A wide range of opinions and beliefs about suicide exist among people in all faith groups. While most agree on the destructive and painful aspects of suicide, there is an increasing understanding that the decision to take one’s own life is influenced by many variables including mental illnesses. Judgment is often tempered by compassion and by the belief that the individual will ultimately be judged by God who understands the full intent of one’s heart. However, within each faith group, some people are still judgmental and believe the person who died by suicide simply did not hold onto the beliefs or pray and practice the rituals of his faith diligently enough.
  • Except in the case of Hindu “honorable” suicides, suicide is not condoned by any faith group.
  • Most suicides can be prevented. We are responsible for each other, and we need to be proactive in promoting hope and meaning in life for people in distress.
  • Suicide is a tragedy and a terrible loss for the victim’s friends, family, and community. However, it is also an opportunity to “change poison into medicine” by spurring people into action to promote connections with others and prevent high-risk behaviors such as drinking and gambling.
  • The causes of any suicide are multiple and complex. However, a person who takes his own life often has a number of risk factors, such as mental illnesses and substance use disorders that are not offset by protective factors such as caring relationships with friends and family and a strong connection to a faith community.
  • Stigma, lack of culturally acceptable “language,” and lack of culturally appropriate mental health services prevent many people from seeking help.
  • Except for Hindu and Buddhist priests whose roles are mainly ceremonial, most clergy are likely to agree to be involved in suicide prevention efforts. Within the Hindu and Buddhist communities there are many other people and organizations that would welcome the opportunity to engage in suicide prevention.
  • Clergy and other leaders in faith-based communities need training and access to sound information regarding mental health, mental illnesses, and suicide prevention.
  • Many perspectives in addition to those represented at this small meeting would contribute in important ways to this dialogue.

SPNAC readers may download the complete source document, “The Role of Faith Communities in Preventing Suicide.”

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Christian Writers Push Back against Suicide Stigma

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on April 30, 2009 at 7:00 am

[Editor’s note: Two recently published articles written by Christian authors give perspectives that push back against the stigma about suicide to which Christianity has historically contributed. The ideas they touch upon reflect a trend over the past century–and increasingly in recent decades–for Christian churches to be more understanding about mental illness and suicide and less judgmental and prescriptive about related behavior.]

In a story in Christianity Today, journalist Christine Scheller writes candidly about her religious faith in relation to the death of her son by suicide.

For nearly two decades, love gave rein to Gabriel, his brother, my husband, and me as we galloped prettily through life. Then we hit a rough patch … Our church experiences alone had left my husband and me limping and our sons jaded … Just about the time I thought we might regain our family stride, Gabriel died by suicide. He was 23 …

Early on, the suicide felt like a cruel cosmic joke. It was as if God, or the Devil, or some Job-like combination thereof, was mocking and toying with us.

The family received comfort from a psychiatrist Scheller had recently met, Aaron Kheriaty of the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum, who assured them that their son’s death was not their fault and “firmly insisted that the death would never make sense: suicide is inherently an irrational act.”

Kheriaty was a safe person to invite into our moment of horror, unlike some pastors who later described the suicide as an “unwise choice” and simple spiritual failure.

Kheriaty delivered the homily at Gabriel’s funeral, explaining that

“For reasons that are quite beyond our comprehension, God allowed Gabriel to suffer a terrible illness … Gabriel’s death issued from an unsound mind that was afflicted by a devastating disorder.”

In the end, Scheller writes as a survivor who needs “time and space to come to a realistic self-assessment”:

I trust that for me, the crucible will forge a better person, and lead to peace … When I think of all that Gabriel suffered in this life, I do not understand. I find it difficult to trust God or engage him with the intimacy I once enjoyed. And yet every day, I inhale moments of grace. I am immeasurably grateful for the privilege of being Gabriel’s mother.

As Gabriel was walking out the door of this life, I called out after him, “I love you.” Love is as strong as death, wrote Solomon. The love of God is stronger.

The latest column in The Citizen (Fayette County, Georgia) by Pastor Justin Kollmeyer of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville is titled “Suicide and Heaven.” According to Kollmeyer, not merely “the truth” but “the truth with power and conviction” is that

[Suicide is] wrong. It’s horrible. It’s cruel. It’s regrettable. It’s not the answer. It’s not God’s will. It is never an acceptable solution. It’s an atrocious wounding of all those who love the one making this decision, especially the family …

But I believe there is more to committing suicide than just making one bad and damnable decision for all time …

Kollmeyer first accounts for those who die by suicide because of clinical depression, which he says “is a disease, just as a heart attack is a disease, and cancer is a disease, and diabetes is a disease.”

Health care professionals remind us that suicide is not an inevitable or acceptable outcome of depression. None of us “accepts” suicide as a result of depression, but in hindsight we can see the disease at its most destructive when we see suicide. Death by disease? Unfortunately yes.

Then he goes on to answer the question of suicide being an “unforgivable sin” from a Christian point of view:

Fortunately no! God declares in His word through scripture that He loves His creation, especially His human creation despite the “fallen-ness” and “brokenness” of human sin … God can disagree totally with the decision of one of His dear children, who commits suicide. But at the same time, He keeps His promise to grant salvation and receive sinners into eternal life. Ultimately, we all get into heaven the exact same way. Not earning it, not deserving it, but by trusting in and believing in the sheer grace of God. Can someone who commits suicide go to heaven? Simply, yes. By the grace of God.

Kollmeyer tosses suicide on the pile with all sin (including the Christian concept of “original sin”)–which is contradictory, for one must ask, Is being sick a sin?–but nonetheless, he asserts the belief that Christian doctrine does not condemn those who die by suicide to hell.

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Children’s Deaths Cause Anti-Bullying Outcry

In Prevention, Stigma on April 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm

[Editor’s note: Several stories linked to in this post include  a brief description of a suicide.] ORIGINAL COMMENTARYMcClatchy-Tribune News Service on Friday published an op-ed by Charles Robbins, executive director of the Trevor Project, and Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), condemning the type of school bullying that has been linked to the recent deaths of two 11-year-old boys by suicide.

Neither Carl [Joseph Walker-Hoover] nor Jaheem [Herrera] identified as gay, yet their peers’ defamatory language and hurtful behaviors broke the barriers of sexual orientation and gender identity. Being taunted as “faggot,” “queer,” or “homo” by classmates is offensive and demeaning to any student -– straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning alike.

The writers point to research showing that homosexuality and intolerance toward sexual orientation are markers for increased risk of suicidal behavior among young people, including references to two studies previously covered by SPNAC:

  • A study by the Family Acceptance Project, which “showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide.”
  • A paper from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) reporting on “a variety of studies indicat[ing] that LGB youth are nearly one-and-a-half to three times more likely to have reported suicidal ideation than non-LGB youth. Research from several sources also revealed that LGB youth are nearly one-and-a-half to seven times more likely than non-LGB youth to have reported attempting suicide”

While Robbins’ and Byard’s essay effectively focuses on bullying related to sexual orientation, they make the point that gay-bashing is a major theme in much of the bullying that seems rampant in U.S. schools.

Two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, according to a 2005 report by GLSEN and Harris Interactive. In addition, the Trevor Project fields tens of thousands of calls from young people each year, both straight and LGBT-identified, with rejection and harassment by peers being one of the top five issues reported by callers.

In the same GLSEN and Harris report, more than a third of middle and high school students said that bullying, name-calling and harassment is a somewhat or very serious problem at their school. Furthermore, two-thirds of middle school students reported being assaulted or harassed in the previous year and only 41 percent said they felt safe at school.

When they write “Enough is enough,” they are obviously–and poignantly–issuing a call to action for putting a stop to all bullying perpetrated against all children.

It is our hope that in memory of Carl and Jaheem, and in honor of all young people who have completed suicide after enduring constant torment at school, we will be able to work together to promote school environments that celebrate diversity and encourage acceptance of all people. Only then will we be confident that our children are receiving the respect and education they deserve today in order to become the successful and equality-minded leaders of tomorrow.

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[Related SPNAC post: “Father Crusades against Cyberbullying after Son’s Suicide“]

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Culture of Stigma Is a Key Cause of Military, Veteran Suicides

In Policy, Prevention, Stigma on March 24, 2009 at 11:32 am

singleace_card-back1By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Ever since the Army announced that suicide in its ranks was at an all-time high last year, news outlets have been brimming with coverage about the causes and solutions for the tragedy unfolding among America’s active military and veterans. Several of the latest installments covered testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by some of the military’s top brass (SPNAC readers may refer to the transcripts,  or a webcast of the hearing). According to a Stars & Stripes report on the hearing, it “was designed to address plans to deal with the rate of military suicides, which is above the national average.”

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff for the Army, called the suicide figures for his service “unacceptable” and fixing them “the most difficult and critical mission” of his military career. “The reality is, there is no simple solution. It is going to require a multi-disciplinary approach, and a team effort at every level of command and across all Army components, all services and jurisdictions, as well as partners out of our organization.”

An article on the hearing in Air Force Times summarizes the statistics that are behind the military’s and Veterans Administration’s alarm about suicide:

The Air Force lost 38 airmen to suicide in 2008, a rate of 11.5 suicides per 100,000 airmen. … In 2008, the Army reported 140 confirmed or suspected suicides. That’s 20.2 suicides per 100,000 troops — an all-time high that is nearly twice the national average of 11 suicides per 100,000 … The Navy reported 41 suicides in 2008, a rate of 11.6 per 100,000. The Marine Corps lost 41 Marines last year to confirmed or suspected suicides — up from 25 two years earlier — a rate of 19 per 100,000.

The hearing included testimony from Kathryn Power, director of the Center for Mental Health Services in the Department of Health and Human Services, who shared another potentially troubling indicator with the Senators:

More ominously, 780 callers to a national VA suicide prevention hot line in fiscal 2008 identified themselves as active-duty troops, [she] said. Since Oct. 1, an average of three hotline callers per day have identified themselves as being on active duty, Power said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that indicates many conflicted troops continue to feel a sense of stigma over reporting suicidal thoughts to superiors or military mental health officials.

“When you’ve got this many people feeling they can’t talk to someone within the system, that’s a problem,” Graham said.

Another aspect of the challenge facing those who care for military personnel and veterans was highlighted at the hearing by Brian Altman of the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA):

[He] said the services have made improvements on the issue in the last year. But they still need to hire more medical professionals to handle troops suffering from depression — a promise they’ve been making for several years, he said — and to do a better job educating about signs of suicidal thoughts.

“They’ve done a good job with troops … but many times those who commit suicide are not in theater,” he said. “So we would like to see them try and educate spouses and other family members, too, so they can identify the warning signs.”

A recent news release from U.S. Army Forces Command, reprinted in a “Special Report” at the blog Veterans Today, shows how ambitiously Army leadership is responding to suicide (and similar lists of programs are being implemented in the other military branches and in the VA):

On February 15, an Army stand-down began and continues through March 15 … The stand-down teaches peer-to-peer recognition of suicide warning signs and is available to all Army components and Department of the Army civilians … Phase I, an interactive video “Beyond the Front,” allows participants to choose options throughout the film, with the outcome based on their choices … Phase II of the training, also a video, “Shoulder to Shoulder,” reinforces the Army credo of “No Soldier Left Behind” and ties it to helping a Soldier in need …

One of the programs chaplains use is ACE, which stresses the “battle buddy” system. ACE [is] a mnemonic that represents the phrases, “Ask your buddy, Care for your buddy, Escort your buddy” …

[Also,] ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) program … trains leaders on intervention and working with distressed Soldiers and Families. Army policy requires one ASIST-trained representative in every battalion.

Even with all of the programs coming down the line, Sen. Graham’s observation about stigma is emerging as the key roadblock for troops and small-unit leadership at the operational level. The power of stigma over help-seeking in military culture, in fact, may be the battle upon which winning the war against suicide depends. As Christopher Weaver points out in a post at ProPublica,

It’s a familiar refrain. Since 2003, yearly reports on the Army’s suicide rates have spurred similar news stories and similar reactions by Pentagon officials. Suicide-prevention initiatives — such as the “battle-buddy” program, which relied on ordinary soldiers to keep an eye on each other — have spawned in the wake of the grim statistics, but the numbers have only worsened.

Referring to a Jan. 29 article in the New York Times, Weaver writes,

[It] is absolutely critical to reach out to soldiers and tell them it is not wrong to reach out for help,” [Gen. Peter] Chiarelli told the Times. “We have to change our culture.”

The call for a change in culture also has echoes. A March 2008 report by the Army’s inspector general suggested a new “culture of support for psychological health.” And in April 2005, the Marine Corps Times reported that the Army’s surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, told a House Appropriations subcommittee, “That’s still part of our culture: Real men don’t see [mental health counselors]… I would like to see a culture that resets the force mentally.”

If stigma ingrained in military culture is a force that is stopping suicide prevention programs from working effectively, then the vital question to answer is, What is military (and civilian) leadership doing –besides issuing orders, which is a necessary but not sufficient step — to decisively lessen the stigma against help-seeking that is killing so many of those whose sacrifices make our freedom possible?

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Author’s Widow Gives Fresh Perspective in “Stories Left To Tell”

In Grief, Stigma on February 24, 2009 at 5:34 am

Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray

ORIGINAL INTERVIEW — In an article in the Boston Globe, staff writer Megan Tench interviews Kathleen Russo, survivor of her husband’s suicide in 2004, about the dramatic presentation “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell,” which “is her way of giving his words a new voice.”

With a four-person ensemble and rotating guest speakers … the show draws on both Gray’s acclaimed monologues and his unpublished writings. Audiences will laugh wildly, says Russo, radio producer for an NPR affiliate in the Hamptons – and perhaps they will see a greater humanity and the deep sense of humility that defined her husband’s life.

In the interview, Tench asks Russo, “How have you coped with his suicide?”

Well, there’s no manual. You just get through it somehow in your own way. What helped me most was that I had my children that I had to be responsible for and care for. I had no choice. If it was just Spalding and myself, maybe it would be different. But I had these kids to still raise, so I needed to be as strong as possible.

And then she asks, “Did you see it coming?”

Of course. He was sick for almost three years. One thing your readers need to be absolutely clear on and we do make clear in the show was that he was suffering from brain damage from the car accident. So, yes, he was prone to depression. Yes, he had bouts of depression and episodes. But this was really because he had brain damage.

In the end, Russo gives voice to the experience of many survivors who hope to counter the stigma of suicide:

I think it’s really important to talk about suicide because the more you talk about it, you realize everyone you know has been touched by it. It’s something that should never be swept under the rug like it was when Spalding’s mother committed suicide and no one talked about it. I don’t want my kids to be embarrassed by how their father died.

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Actor Launches Nonprofit, Creates Film To Conquer Stigma

In Mental Illness, Stigma on February 14, 2009 at 10:43 pm

pantoliano21209ORIGINAL REVIEW — In Joe Pantoliano’s hometown newspaper, the Wilton Bulletin, reporter Paul Schott reviews the actor’s work-in-progress “No Kidding, Me Too!, which shows how diagnosis and treatment can empower those with brain diseases to lead fulfilling lives.”

As well as chronicling Mr. Pantoliano’s own battle with clinical depression, No Kidding, Me Too! prominently features young people who have struggled with depression, drug addiction, and self-injuring. Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the harmful repercussions of undiagnosed brain dis-eases, says Mr. Pantoliano. He adds that with the documentary, he wants to teach young people that “it’s cool to talk about your feelings.”

Pantoliano, who directs and narrates the film, has also founded a nonprofit organizaton of the same name, No Kidding, Me Too!, which has as one of its goals “removing the social stigma of brain diseases or mental illness.”

The name of Mr. Pantoliano’s documentary and nonprofit comes from the hope that one day all people with brain diseases will feel comfortable sharing their story and that another person with a mental illness will respond, “No kidding, me too!”

The organization’s homepage features a trailer for the film, a television interview of Pantoliano with NBC’s Brian Williams, and a statement of purpose:

No Kidding, Me Too! is … comprised of entertainment industry members united in an effort to educate Americans about the epidemic related to brain dis-ease in all forms. Through this enlightenment we will teach those suffering from it, and their loved ones who are victims of it, to talk about it openly. The goal is to tear this stigma out of the closet so these people will be surprised to find millions of others like themselves and say, “No Kidding, Me Too!”

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Oratorical Skills Help Teenager Cope with His Father’s Suicide

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on February 13, 2009 at 11:03 am
Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

[Editor’s note: The story referenced includes brief descriptions of several suicide attempts.] Last month, reporter Kelsey Dayton learned she had won first place in feature writing from the Wyoming Press Association for a story last April in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. The story is about teenager Brandon Kapelow, whose …

… journey creating what would be an award-winning original oratory for this year’s high-school speech and debate season started in spring 2002 when Brandon was 8. That was the first time his father tried to kill himself.

The speech Brandon delivered is as helpful as it is courageous, for it reveals not only what it is like for a child to survive his parent’s suicide, but also what it is like for him to live with a parent’s mental illness, including several nonfatal suicide attempts.

Brandon celebrated his ninth birthday while his dad was hospitalized for his second suicide attempt. His father admitted trying to buy a gun to kill himself. In the hospital, he refused to eat, hoping to starve to death.

Brandon began to understand bipolar disorder and how people who loved life could be so sick they tried to end it, when his father made a third attempt. Loren [Kapeolow, Brandon’s mother] tracked him to Carbondale, Colo., by intercepting the trademark suicide notes he sent by FedEx. He was in a storage unit, his wrists slit, trying to asphyxiate on carbon monoxide from the running car and barbecue grills he had lit in the small space.

After Stephen’s fourth attempt was thwarted, when he had planned to jump off a building in Indianapolis, it was beginning to seem like routine.

Dayton’s story tells about Brandon’s development as a high school orator, about his yearning to talk about the subject that had shaped his young life, and about the assistance and understanding he received along the way.

His first speech was clinical, full of statistics. Mark Houser, his coach, knew Brandon would have to add emotional gravity to the story to be competitive. But Houser, who coincidentally is a member of Teton County Suicide Prevention and had a friend who killed himself, stepped back. He saw Brandon’s speech wasn’t just about trying to win ribbons.

This was a kid on a journey who needed to go at his own pace.

As Brandon confronted his first competitions in qualifying rounds, he he “worried about using his dad’s story.”

He didn’t want sympathy points. He felt unprepared the first time he presented the speech, at a meet in Rock Springs. He felt exposed when he nodded, “Judge ready?”

[Afterward,] The judges’ comments read: “Excellent grasp of facts and statistics … Good use of personal story without making it a pity party … You have the ability to make a difference concerning suicide because of your insight and because of your excellent communications skills.”

Brandon’s mother watched her son’s progress from the sidelines as he spoke publicly about their family’s tragedy, crediting his oratorical endeavors with helping him with his grief.

Losing a father to suicide is something Brandon probably will never fully recover from, his mother said. Instead, he must learn to cope. Through speech, Brandon was coming to terms with his father’s suicide. His mother knew he was healing or he wouldn’t have decided to talk about it publicly day after day, she said …

Brandon’s no-holds-barred message has an unquantifiable potential to touch lives, Houser [the speech coach] said. Stigma is the biggest issue with suicide, leaving survivors feeling alone and preventing people from getting help, he said. It inspired Houser in his own prevention efforts.

“If there is a teenager that can be so brave, I should try to work through some of my own barriers,” he said.

His presentations are also having an effect on the audiences he has been speaking to.

His speech is not just about how losing a father changes the life of a son. It is a call to action. Be aware. Talk about the taboo. Break the stigma.

In the hallway of Jackson Hole High School, during the national qualifying meet, a girl stopped him … She wanted to thank him. She was depressed. She had seen his piece in Rock Springs. She realized she wasn’t alone … She would be OK now, she said. His speech – his life – had changed hers.

SPNAC readers can also read more about Brandon’s family’s experience in a 2006 News & Guide story in which his mother is quoted extensively. She says, for instance

“Mental illness is a fatal illness, just like cancer.”

“My life is an open book … If I close that book, then it’s like saying I’m not going to help somebody else. … I think that if people don’t talk about it, if we make it taboo, then how are we going to help each other? How are we going to help each other heal?”

[The abridged URL for this story is .]

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Two Random Acts of Speaking Out Are Brought Together

In Advocacy, Grief, Stigma on February 1, 2009 at 10:19 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Separate items published over the weekend in two different newspapers–one in California and the other in New Jersey–coincidentally brought together the voices of two people who have lost a loved one to suicide. From opposite sides of the continent, each of them was speaking out against stigma .

The first voice comes to us courtesy of Brian Hamilton, sports editor of the Nevada County Union in Grass Valley, Calif., who last week “watched one of the most courageous performances I have ever seen on a basketball floor.”

It came at halftime, with no ball nor hoop necessary. As he grabbed hold of the microphone and [a] thousand or so basketball fans were sitting in absolute solemn silence, Mike Bratton began to tell a story no parent should ever have to share.

“My son … committed suicide,” he said. “And that’s something that’s so often covered up and hidden because of the embarrassment. My son committed suicide, you know, so did I do something wrong? It’s just had that stigma.”

“It’s an every moment, in-your-face, life-lasting reality. It’s something that never goes away, the aftermath and devastating effects of suicide. But it has to be talked about. People have to know. We don’t want it to be glorified, what my son did, but people have to know.”

The second voice comes to us directly from Augusta Santos, in an op-ed piece at, the website of the Home News Tribune and the Courier News. Augusta suggests that “it’s time for this six-letter word (stigma) to be removed from the Webster’s Dictionary — in order for it to stop having so much power and control in people’s lives.”

I believe and know that until families, communities, and society accept … emotional disorders the same way they accept their physical illness, this six-letter word called stigma will not go away.

Augusta’s husband, John, died of suicide in 2004, and she thinks stigma played a part in his death, so she wrote to her hometown newspaper this weekend to suggest that people do more to make stigma “go away.”

As I lived with John, a man with a heart of gold, who struggled with deep depression, I experienced first-hand what this horrible and debilitating illness can do to the human body …

Never did I imagine that there is an organization called the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) whose mission is to improve the quality of life of individuals who suffer from a serious mental illness and provide moral support for their families. I believe that health professionals, who have patients suffering with emotional disorders, should go that extra mile to inform the patient and their families of these important organizations.

I’m pretty sure Mike Bratton and Augusta Santos don’t know each other, and it is purely happenstance that what they said recently about stigma got put together here, but the synchronicity of their voices–speaking out bravely against the stigma they and their loved ones have faced–made me wonder how powerful a message we might send to our society about stigma if we all put our voices together.

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Attempt Survivor Speaks Out with Art after His Brother’s Suicide

In Advocacy, Grief, Prevention, Stigma on January 28, 2009 at 1:14 am

micartist1ORIGINAL STORY — Reporter Andy Parks, writing for the Northern Rivers Echo in Lismore, Australia, tells the story of Mic Eales, who survived two suicide attempts before his brother Bryan took his life seven years ago.

Bryan’s death was a catalyst for a positive change in Mic’s life. He started harnessing his experiences and creating works of art that deal with the issue of suicide … At the moment he is collecting coffee cups. Mic’s aim is to collect 2101 coffee cups (the latest figure from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for Australians who committed suicide in a year) for a piece he is planning to create.

“It’s about the conversations we don’t have. We have pleasant conversations when we are having coffee, but we don’t go there… If somebody has experienced suicide, we don’t talk about it, we closet it. So I want to be able to open it up to say ‘these are the conversations we need to have.’”

Mic’s creative and provocative way of bringing attention to suicide includes a piece called “Too Few Ladders,” which is based on “‘Snakes and Ladders’ … an ancient Hindu game … used to teach children about the ups and downs of life.”

Mic said most people who had seen Too Few Ladders came up to him and talked about a friend or a cousin who had suicided.

“Everybody knows somebody,” he said.

He still struggles at times with suicidal thoughts, and he deals with them by focusing on his family, meditating, and using “the 12-step program for addicts [adapted] for his own situation.”

Another factor in his survival has been an ongoing correspondence with the daughter of a friend who committed suicide.

“(I tried) to explain to her the pain that somebody goes through: When you get into that dark place, you don’t think about the family. You actually think they are going to be better off without you. They’re weird, twisted thoughts, but they are very real and very logical (at the time). That’s the part you have to fight. You have to be able to look at those thoughts for what they are.”


Pictured is one of Mic's artworks that combines the pages of a phone book (representing how people often hear of a loved one's suicide) and writings, pictures, and images from throughout his own life (representing all that his loved ones would have to remember him by if he had died by suicide), along with an element of "Too Few Ladders."

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Hospice Chaplain Ponders Lessons Learned from Survivors

In Grief, Stigma on January 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm

ORIGINAL COLUMN — Ted Swann, a chaplain for Burke Hospice & Palliative Care of Valdese, N.C., writes in a column for the Morganton News Herald, “In my opinion, death by suicide is the most complicated grief to deal with.”

There are no goodbyes … Once, I facilitated a support group for suicide survivors … [in which] the group of six widows ITAL taught me. I was a good listener. Once they felt safe with one another they shared deep feelings, frustrations, anger and disappointments.

Swann says he learned several important lessons from listening to the members of that support group:

People don’t want to talk about suicide. It’s a different grief … There are at least these three reasons we don’t talk about it: The stigma — What do you feel when people whisper behind your back? … If you don’t know what to say, just be there for your friend. He/she is hurting and is an unfortunate victim … It’s too painful — It’s a sudden, violent death. There’s no gentle way to die by suicide … It is excruciatingly painful, but communication is vital … Theological beliefs — Many Christian churches, and individual members of them, are divided on this question. Personally, I want to look at all of a person’s life, not just the last 60 seconds. I accept the belief that the God of grace encompasses all of life.

Swann also makes several observations about the “feelings of anger, guilt and shame” that the support group members shared with one another.

Wrongly, we think, someone is responsible. This is more common with a suicide death than with other illnesses. This is an important quotation: “The other day I heard the father of a boy who had committed suicide say, ‘Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. But the person who kills themselves leaves their skeleton in another’s closet.”

Each loved one wracks their mind and tears the heart questioning, “What could I have done to prevent this?”

In the end, he shares his opinion:

The suicide survivors, wounded healers, are the best therapists for each other. Together they work through feelings of shame and guilt.

And he offers some excellent advice:

A good rule to follow: As we meet people each day, let our kindness and caring be intentional. After all, we don’t know what just happened in their lives. “In response to all He has done for us let us outdo each other in being helpful and kind to each other and in doing good” (Living Bible — Hebrews 10:24).

Isn’t it time we talked? I have a friend who is a whittler. The finest I’ve known. He and I made a covenant that if the time comes, we will say to each other, “Isn’t it time we talked?”

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All Recruiters To “Stand Down” One Day in Wake of Investigation

In Policy, Stigma on January 22, 2009 at 5:53 pm


Army recruiter Nils “Aron” Andersson--who served two combat tours in Iraq--died by suicide in 2007.

ORIGINAL REPORT — A report yesterday by Catherine Abbott of the Army’s Office of Public Affairs details the conclusions from “a two and a half month investigation into the suicides of four Soldiers assigned to the Houston Recruiting Battalion … between January 2005 and September 2008.”

The investigation concluded that there was no single cause for these deaths. Relevant factors included the command climate, stress, personal matters, and medical problems …

As a result of the findings, Secretary of the Army directed a USAREC command-wide “stand down” day focused on leadership training, suicide prevention [and] resiliency training and recruiter wellness … The Army is also reviewing recruiter screening and selection processes, the provisions of care for Soldiers who need mental health care, Army-wide suicide prevention training, and access to care and peer support networks for geographically dispersed Soldiers.

In an article in the Houston Chronicle yesterday, the Associated Press reports that

Brig. Gen. Dell Turner, who conducted the investigation, … said the one-day stand-down is a significant action. “It’s rarely implemented, and typically only after some significant event. It’s a day for the unit to stop what it’s doing on the mission side and review policies and practices.”

In a separate AP story late today in the Chronicle, it is being reported that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who was instrumental in initiating the original investigation “on Thursday called for a congressional hearing on suicides among Army recruiters, saying a recent group of deaths in an East Texas battalion show the strain on an all-volunteer force fighting two wars.”

“As you might imagine, corners might have been cut — and they were — given the exigency of recruiting for war,” Cornyn said in a conference call with reporters. “The concern is that this is not isolated to a single battalion.”

For the Cornyn story, AP reporter Michelle Roberts also spoke to “Charlotte Porter, the mother of recruiter Sgt. Nils “Aron” Andersson”:

“There’s so much pain still,” she said. “It’s not only the Army that’s going to have to take a stand. Other people are going to have to take a stand. These young men fought for our rights to speak out. When they come home, we have to find a way to listen.”

For more in-depth coverage of yesterday’s breaking news, see the article by Chronicle staff writer Lisa Wise.

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[Related SPNAC posts:]

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“Prayers for Bobby” Shines Spotlight on Suicide of Gay Youth

In Grief, Media, Stigma on January 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Sigourney Weaver and Ryan Kelley embrace in their roles as mother and son.

Staff writer David Wiegand, in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, gives the upcoming TV movie Prayers for Bobby, starring Sigourney Weaver, a bit of criticism for “awkward dialogue and merely adequate direction,” but in the end, he praises the film for the emotional weight of its acting and its message.

If “Prayers for Bobby,” airing Saturday [9 p.m. ET/PT] and based on the book by the late Leroy Aarons, is a tearjerker, it’s not only because it’s a Lifetime original film, and that’s what the network does, but because the true story of Bobby Griffith is tragic.

The film is about a gay teenager whose mother (Mary Griffith, played by Weaver) is a fundamentalist Christian who tries to “cure” him, which contributes to the young man’s suicide. The tragedy results in the mother coming to a new understanding about homosexuality, including speaking out about her experience. For more information about the movie, see the Internet Movie Database plot summary.

In a Boston Herald review, Mark Perigard writes that Weaver gives “one heartrending performance as a mother who realizes her rejection of her gay son led to his suicide.”

In the hands of a lesser actress, Mary would come off as an unhinged religious fanatic. As Weaver captures her, she’s a devoted parent confronted by something alien and frightening to her core beliefs … Weaver’s work should be remembered come Emmy time.

SPNAC readers may view a trailer of Prayers for Bobby, and MyLifetime’s page about the movie includes additional video, photos, interviews, and background material.

[UPDATE 01/22/2009] CBS’s Early Show today featured a TV interview by Maggie Rodriguez with Sigourney Weaver, in which the actress talks about meeting the real-life Mary:

“I have to say that I never felt judgmental of Mary. She meant the best for her son. That’s what’s so frightening … As far as she was concerned, this was a choice. And I think she didn’t understand that this was part of who Bobby was. She thought he was choosing a life, and she readily admits that she was incredibly ignorant.”

Also in today’s news, TV writer Chuck Barney of the  Contra Costa Times interviews Mary in “the Walnut Creek home [Bobby] left behind.”

Mary, 74, is sitting in the kitchen of a ranch-style home that is packed with cherished knickknacks, family photos, angel figurines and grade-school artwork provided by her grandchildren.

“I didn’t listen to my conscience. I was entrenched,” Mary recalls. “But I don’t live with the guilt anymore because I realized I was truly ignorant. It wasn’t something I did out of malice. So I can forgive myself for that.”

Following Bobby’s death, Mary, believing she was to blame, began an extraordinary journey of redemption and transformation. She became a highly visible spokeswoman for the Diablo Valley chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG]. She also appeared frequently on television talk shows, campaigning for public school counseling to support gay teenagers.

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[Related SPNAC post: “Trevor Project Honors Actress for Inspiring LGBTQ Youth” ]

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MLK Day Inspire’s Blogger’s Dream for Better Mental Health Care

In Mental Illness, Stigma on January 19, 2009 at 9:17 pm

ORIGINAL POST — On Huffington Post today, blogger Therese Borchard shares her vision for mental health care in “On MLK Day: I, Too, Have a Dream,” in which she says, “I dream that one day depression won’t destroy so many marriages and families, that better and faster treatment will work in favor of every form of intimacy.”

Borchard is author of her own blog, “Beyond Blue,” which is hosted by, but even as her writing often reflects a religious point of view, she comes down firmly on the side of science in her views about mental illness.

I have a dream that … a neurological perspective coupled with a biochemical approach to mental illness will develop targeted treatments: new medication and better response to particular medications … I have a dream that spiritual leaders might preach compassion to persons with mental illness, not indict them for not praying hard enough, or in the right way, or often enough …

And Borchard, who herself lives with bipolar disorder, writes passionately about suicide:

I have a dream that suicide won’t take more lives than traffic accidents, lung disease, or AIDS, that together we can do better to reduce the 30,000 suicides that happen annually in the United States, and that communities will lovingly embrace those friends and families of persons who ran out of hope, instead of simply ignoring the tragedy or attaching fault where none should be.

Borchard moderates a depression support group on, and her memoir is due out later this year from Center Street publishing company.

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Chicago Group Is a Model for Local Mental Health Advocacy

In Advocacy, Mental Illness, Stigma on January 15, 2009 at 1:42 pm

ORIGINAL REPORT — Staff writer Megan Cottrell reports in the Chi Town Daily News on “members of the group Coalition to Save our Mental Health Centers” who recently “were shocked to find out that North River [Mental Health Center] is set to close its doors at the end of the month.

“It’s absolutely appalling to find out that the center is closing,” says Linda Forbes, pastor of Sauganash Community Church. “Where are the families going to go that need care?”

North River is just one of five centers around the city that will be closed this year by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The department will consolidate these centers into the seven remaining centers that are spread across the city on Feb. 1.

City officials explain that the restructuring is linked to reductions in funding, “most notably a $1.2 million cut from the state,” arguing that the seven remaining centers will be able to provide more efficient, more effective services than the current 12 centers for which “resources have been spread very thin.”

“Right now we have a patchwork situation that makes no sense,” [says Dr. Terry Mason, head of the Department of Public Health]. “What we’re doing will result in care that is consistent and complete.”

“We will not drop any of our patients,” says Tim Hadac, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health. “All patients are being welcomed at the remaining CDPH clinics, if they choose.”

But, of course, accessibility and efficiency often work against one another.

Organizers in North River’s surrounding community say asking the center’s 450 severely mentally ill patients to travel across the city for services is nearly impossible.

“It’s gonna take us three hours at least,” says Lourdes Adrianzen, a patient at North River who lives in Kilbourn Park. “I have to take the bus to the red line. It would take me an hour and a half just to get there.”

In the face of the budget cuts that could be forthcoming in communities everywhere, the care of the mentally ill is going to have to be considered not only in terms of short-term costs but also in terms of a community’s priorities.

“We seem to be involved in more glamorous battles these days, and we forget about those people who need our help,” says [Alderman William Banks].

“How can Chicago afford to have the 2016 Olympics if we cannot afford to help the needy and the mentally ill?” [Forbes] says. “How can we dare to present ours as a first-rate city and give third- or fifth-rate care to the citizens?”

And the Chi Town article closes with an essential point that is ultimately of vital interest across Americal:

Department of Public Health officials say the issue of mental health funding isn’t a problem at the city level — it’s a battle that’s been waging for years on the national stage, for more federal funding.

“For decades, mental health care has long been neglected in our nation’s capital–treated like a poor and unwanted cousin,” says Mason [of the Department of Public Health]. “I am hopeful that with a new President and a new Congress firmly committed to fully-funded health care reform, in 2009 we will at long last see movement in the right direction.”

Chicago’s Coalition to Save our Mental Health Centers is noteworthy because it provides a model for local advocacy; for instance, the coalition’s website is an effective springboard for community action, and its resources include tools such as a locally produced video that superbly tells the story of the group’s efforts.

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