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Through awareness and education, suicide is losing its stigma

Fourteen years ago, Bonnie and Mickey Swade’s son Brett committed suicide at age 31. Back then there were no suicide support groups and because of the stigma attached people were reluctant to even bring it to the attention of professional mental health facilitators.

 

To honor the memory of their son, the Swades started a suicide support group in 2003 and then in 2004 founded Suicide Awareness Survivor Support Missouri-Kansas (SASS-MoKan).

In addition to SASS-MoKan, now there are several support groups in the greater Kansas City area, Mickey Swade said. Every September SASS-MoKan sponsors the Remembrance Walk, which not only raises money for suicide awareness, education, prevention and survivor support, but helps fight the stigma surrounding suicide.

“Putting it out there in the public is probably the best way,” said Mickey.

The Remembrance Walk also serves the purpose of letting people know they all have something in common. People typically feel they’re the only ones going through this kind of grief and suffering, but when they’re in the middle of 300 to 400 people who have also lost loved ones, they realize they are not alone.

Mickey said on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, SASS-MoKan has a holiday memorial service at no charge. The topic is primarily getting through the holiday season while coping with grief.

Bonnie Swade said in April there’s a healing day for survivors for them to learn ways to cope with their grief. It might be yoga or certain healing foods, and they listen to the soothing music of a Native American flute.

The Swades are also members of the Johnson County Mental Health Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition, coordinated by Jewish Family Services.

“They go into schools and present programs, so we are very proud to be a part of these organizations,” Bonnie said.

When SASS-MoKan first began the Swades tried to go into schools to talk about suicide, but it was difficult to get them to comply. Just like sex education many years ago, they felt you would be putting ideas into kids’ heads, Mickey said.

“The ideas were already there, and the same thing today (regarding suicide) — just because you talk about it you’re not putting ideas into kids’ heads; they’re already thinking about it,” he said. “And if they’re thinking about it in the wrong ways, you need to be talking to them to see if you can have an intervention or get it straightened out.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old Americans. The Swades believe cyber-bullying and computer games have a lot to do with it. Bonnie said it’s easier to “get” to somebody than it ever used to be. Mickey said in many computer games when a character dies he has another life and that’s not a good message to send.

One of the answers to preventing suicide is to teach young people they have to talk about it.

“If you’re thinking about it, you need to tell somebody and I think that’s something fairly new; it wasn’t done before,” Mickey said.

If a young person feels he or she can’t talk to their parents, they need to talk to a trusted adult, Bonnie said. That someone could be a grandparent, aunt, uncle, school counselor — any adult they can trust with their feelings who isn’t going to look at them and make them feel ashamed.

“And if your best friend tells you something in strict confidence in regard to suicide, you’ve got to tell somebody; you can’t keep it a secret,” she said.

Kansas just passed The Jason Flatt Act which requires everyone who is employed in a school to have two hours of training each year on suicide prevention. As of 2016, The Jason Flatt Act had passed in 19 states.

“A kid may relate better to the person who works in the cafeteria than he does to his teacher, or may relate to the bus driver,” Mickey said. “So those people need to be prepared to deal with someone thinking about suicide.”

Some warning signs parents should look for in their child are suddenly listening to a different type of music, giving away some of their possessions and mood changes; i.e., becoming depressed or depression changing to a sudden sense of happiness.

“Anytime you have a person or a child that changes what they’re normally like, I would say it’s something that needs to be explored,” Bonnie said.

And, the Swades said, they have to be willing to ask the question: Are you thinking of taking your life.

The Zero Suicide movement adheres to the belief that individuals who are under the care of behavioral health systems are preventable. But Bonnie said she doesn’t know how accurate that is because you never know where potential suicides stand. 

“It’s hard to say there are not going to be any more suicides because there have been suicides since the Roman Empire,” she said. “We can certainly cut down on the number of suicides, but I don’t know that it’s fair to say we can get to every person who’s thinking about it.”

A lot of people contemplating suicide are con artists, Mickey added.

“They know what to say to the doctors,” he said. “They know what they need to say to get what they want when they want it. It’s kind of the nature of the beast.”

Bonnie is ambivalent about the Netflix teen drama “13 Reasons Why,” which deals with circumstances surrounding a teen’s suicide.

“I think it starts a conversation with parents if they watch it with their children,” she said. “Some parents just let their children watch it and I don’t think that’s a very good idea because there’s no time for questions and talking about certain things. So in my opinion I don’t think it glamorizes it, but I’m kind of torn. I would say that it did get the dialogue started.”

If someone is dealing with a mental health issue, they need to go to a mental health hospital where there are emergency rooms equipped to handle these situations. And if you have to call the police on a mental health crisis, Mickey said to ask them to send a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) officer. 

For those dealing with someone who may be suicidal, they can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Johnson County Mental Health Center Crisis line at 913-268-0156.

The Swades are members of Congregation Beth Torah.

Remembrance Walk

The 14th Annual Remembrance Walk will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, at Loose Park, 51st and Wornall Road, Kansas City, Missouri. Registration begins at 8 a.m.

The pre-registration fee is $25; $30 the day of the walk. Register online by going to 

sass-mokan.com/Sass-walk and clicking on the registration link.

Suicide Awareness Survivors Support sponsors the walk, which is for anyone who has 

tragically experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide, homicide, fire or accident. 

Proceeds go toward suicide awareness, education, prevention and survivor support.

For more information, contact Bonnie Swade at 913-681-3050 or by emailing her at 

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