Grasping the Profound Pain of Suicide

Describing depression to those who haven’t experienced it can be clumsy. The analogy I’ve found that best embodies my experience is “cloudy days.” The sun is still there but I’m unable to access that light. Instead, I’m cold and muted. Sometimes it’s cloudy for so long it’s hard to remember what the sun looks like. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the sun is there at all.

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A sculpture from “Schism” representing Sophie Hack MacLeod

As someone who has battled depression for years and intimately understands the pain surrounding suicide and mental illness, I want my art to make a statement about this epidemic. Art is visceral and can describe an effect or experience in deeply powerful ways. This, and my drive to grow as an artist, pushed me to complete a minor in fine arts as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

My installation, “Schism,” is featured in Still I Rise, an exhibition curated by Laura Rowley with the work of 12 artists on view at the Tompkins County Public Library from July through September. “Schism” deals with the pain of losing loved ones to suicide, commenting on the profound hole the deaths leave behind. With rising mental health concerns among my generation, the ability to outwardly mourn for people who die by suicide is incredibly important along the path to healing.

Yes, suicide is a sensitive topic. No, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Treating suicide as a taboo topic not only stunts the healing process for suicide loss survivors, but teaches those plagued with suicidal thoughts that it’s something to be ashamed of, a weakness, which can deter them from seeking support. Open and empathetic conversation is critical to combat such tragedy.

“Schism” contains three sculptures. Each is a life-size, wooden silhouette of a suicide victim that is painted black with the best runner up to Vantablack commercially available, Black 2.0. It’s a special paint that is meant to absorb a higher percentage of light, creating the visual effect of “a schism in space.” This is meant to convey the loss felt when someone is a victim to suicide, to reveal the hole that remains in their physical shape in space they inhabited in life.

This installation is designed to represent loss of the individual, as each sculpture is a personalized and unique silhouette. Further, it is intrinsically connected to Ithaca as the individuals represented were all affiliated with the area: Sophie Hack MacLeod, 23, a Cornell fine arts major; Jason J. Seymour, 40, a Cornell systems analyst; and Alexander Joseph Reposh, 25, an Ithaca filmmaker and musician.

When someone is having suicidal thoughts, it’s far too easy to think, “I don’t matter, no one will even miss me, what’s the point? It’s suffocating.” I hope that “Schism” can be a reminder to those experiencing suicidal thoughts that your life is not trivial but is something to be cherished. “Schism” is also a symbol for those mourning a loved one and the horrific loss they must cope with.

—By Brianna Evans

briannaBrianna Evans is a 2018 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “Schism” was created as an independent study project supervised by Professor Roberto Bertoia of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She wishes to thank The Sophie Fund, and the families of Sophie Hack MacLeod, Jason J. Seymour, and Alexander Joseph Reposh, for their support.

The Healing Power of Storytelling

“The Path to Recovery: One Story at a Time” is the theme of this year’s Annual Depression Conference being held at the Tompkins County Public Library from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 28. Open to the public, the conference includes a keynote talk, a panel discussion on mental health recovery, workshops focused on children/adolescents, adults, and older adults, and a book discussion.

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The keynote speaker is Regi Carpenter, an advocate for “narrative medicine,” a medical approach that utilizes patients’ personal stories as part of their healing. She is the author of Snap!, the story of her own severe mental illness as a teenager and her path to recovery, and a memoir, Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood.

Carpenter was 16 years old when she first experienced severe mental illness and was committed to a New York State mental institution. According to the conference organizers:

“After being released she never spoke of it for over thirty years. As a professional storyteller, author and workshop leader, Regi knows the importance of telling one’s story to overcome trauma, ease anxiety, depression and shame. It wasn’t until she told her story of teenage trauma that Regi knew the healing power of stories to restore and heal the battered psyche. In this keynote you’ll hear stories of Regi’s experience as well as how stories can be used as a therapeutic tool to help clients become more resilient and resourceful.”

From Carpenter’s website bio:

“For over 20 years Regi Carpenter has been bringing songs and stories to audiences of all ages throughout the world in school, theaters, libraries, at festivals, conferences and in people’s back yards. An award winning performer, Regi has toured her solo shows and workshops in theaters, festivals and schools, nationally and internationally.

“Regi is the youngest daughter in a family that pulsates with contradictions: religious and raucous, tender but terrible, unfortunate yet irrepressible. These tales celebrate the glorious and gut-wrenching lives of four generations of Carpenter s raised on the Saint Lawrence River in Clayton, New York. Tales of underwater tea parties, drowning lessons and drives to the dump give voice to multi-generations of family life in a small river town with an undercurrent.”

Ithaca’s 24th Annual Depression Conference is sponsored by: the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County; Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services; Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca; Finger Lakes Independence Center; Ithaca College Gerontology Institute; The Mental Health Association in Tompkins County; Multicultural Resource Center; Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service; Tompkins County Mental Health Department; Tompkins County Office for the Aging; and the Tompkins County Public Library.

Photo Caption: Regi Carpenter

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This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, author of This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, will be the featured guest speaker at a “Readings on Mental Health” event on Sunday, November 19 sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County and hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Kaag called Merkin’s 2017 memoir “one of the most accurate, and therefore most harrowing, accounts of depression to be written in the last century… Ms. Merkin speaks candidly and beautifully about aspects of the human condition that usually remain pointedly silent.”

Andrew Solomon, reviewing This Close to Happy for the New York Times, wrote: “It is standard fare to say that books on depression are brave, but this one actually is. For all its highly personal focus, it is an important addition to the literature of mental illness.”

Merkin is also the author of Enchantment, Dreaming of Hitler and The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags. A former staff writer at the New Yorker, she has also written for the New York Times, Elle, Bookforum, Departures, Travel + Leisure, W, Vogue, Tablet Magazine, and other publications. She has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount College, and Hunter College.

Merkin’s appearance is part of “Readings on Mental Health,” a series featuring authors of books on mental health topics made possible by a grant from The Sophie Fund.

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Ithaca, Opioids, and Trump

Ithaca and Tompkins County are among the American localities severely affected by the opioid crisis, prompting intensified efforts by local officials. Overdoses are a common occurrence, and authorities report an average of 15 drug-related deaths a year since 2011. In 2016, the number skyrocketed to 21, compared to two deaths in 2007.

President Trump put a welcome spotlight on the opioid crisis this week, declaring it a “public health emergency” and describing it as a plague that has spared “no part of our society, not young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural.” At least 64,000 Americans died of overdoes in 2016, driven, Trump said, “by a massive increase in addiction to prescription painkillers, heroin, and other opioids.”

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Trump said he was “directing all executive agencies to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis,” but was short on specifics, mainly rattling off various steps that the federal government had previously taken.

Moreover, Trump’s diagnosis of the crisis and prescription for its cure seemed wide of the mark. His speech focused on blaming foreigners—Chinese and Mexicans—for sending illicit opioids into the country, and on criminal gangs for pushing them on America’s streets. (A key part of Trump’s future plan, he said, is a “massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place.”)

Trump made no mention of two factors that experts increasingly see as fueling the addiction epidemic—pharmaceutical companies pushing legal opioids, and a national mental health crisis in which people desperately seeking relief from depression and anxiety find relief in opioids.

The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels reported in June:

“Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a handful of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson. The lawsuit accuses the companies of spending millions on marketing campaigns that ‘trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.’ The companies, the lawsuit alleges, lobbied doctors to influence their opinions about the safety of opioids, ‘borrowing a page from Big Tobacco.’

“The lawsuit follows similar recent lawsuits in Illinois, Mississippi, four counties in New York, and Santa Clara and Orange Counties in California. Last month, the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against distributors and pharmacies in tribal court over the opioid epidemic. In January, the city of Everett, Washington, filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, alleging that the company knew the drug was being funneled into the black market but did nothing to stop it.”

Also in June, the Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein reported on a study by researchers at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the University of Michigan that linked greater opioid use and mental health disorders. The researchers concluded that 51.4 percent of 115 million opioid prescriptions written annually in the United States were given to people with anxiety and depression.

“Those patients may have some form of physical pain, said Brian Sites, a professor of anesthesiology and orthopedics at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, who led the study team. But their mental condition may cause them to feel that pain more acutely or be less able to cope with it, leading to increased requests for something to dull it.

“Pain that ‘you may report as a two out of 10, someone with mental health disorders — depression, anxiety — may report as a 10 out of 10,’ Sites said in an interview. In addition, opioids may improve the symptoms of depression for a short while, he said, with patients who experience that then asking for continued refills.

“As a result, doctors trying to be empathetic to their patients’ complaints may tend to overprescribe opioid painkillers, he said. About half of all opioids are prescribed by primary-care physicians, who also manage most routine anxiety and depression.”

Trump’s declaration of a “public health emergency” did not involve the release of emergency federal funding, but the White House indicated that the president would soon ask Congress for additional funding to combat the opioid crisis. Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, chaired by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, will hand Trump its final report and recommendations next week.

The New York Times quoted experts saying that an effective policy to fight the crisis will cost billions of dollars:

“Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, said that no emergency declaration would do much to alleviate the impact of opioids without a substantial commitment of federal money and a clear strategy for overhauling the way the country treats addiction.

“‘What we need is for the president to seek an appropriation from Congress, I believe in the billions, so that we can rapidly expand access for effective outpatient opioid addiction treatments,’ Dr. Kolodny said in an interview. ‘Until those treatments are easier to access than heroin or fentanyl, overdose deaths will remain at record-high levels.’”

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state hard hit by the opioid crisis that Trump singled out in his remarks, called for pharmaceutical companies to pay. CNN reported:

“‘This is a business plan. They are liable,’ Manchin told CNN’s Jake Tapper on ‘The Lead’ when asked if he believes the pharmaceutical industry needs to be found legally liable in some cases for the prevalence of opioids in the United States.

“Manchin added that the companies that supply opioids should be charged fees for the drugs they produce and for having inundated the market with the highly addictive drugs.

“‘This is what’s caused it. Can’t we at least charge the pharmaceutical companies one penny per milligram for every opiate they produce?’ Manchin added.

“‘Every state’s been affected,’ he said of the crisis. ‘I’m ground zero, West Virginia, more deaths per capita, more people addicted per capita.’

“‘This is like fighting a war,’ Manchin said about the need for funding. ‘You’ve got your soldiers on the front line fighting … (but) your guys on the front line run out of bullets.’”

Chart: From the Ithaca Voice, October 13, 2017

Save a Life: Learn the Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs

Consider sharing this post. It’s National Suicide Prevention Week— please take a moment to review the Risk Factors and the Warning Signs as they may apply to loved ones, friends, colleagues, or even yourself. Click here for the Risk Factors/Warning Signs page of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. People with Risk Factors or exhibiting Warning Signs are strongly encouraged to seek treatment—suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, please consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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From AFSP:

“There’s no single cause for suicide. Suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition. Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it is often undiagnosed or untreated. Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide. Yet it’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health conditions lead fulfilling lives.”

Risk Factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life:

Health Risk Factors—such as mental health conditions, substance abuse disorders, or serious/chronic health conditions and/or pain.

Environmental Risk Factors—such as stressful life events, prolonged stress conditions, access to lethal means, and exposure to suicide.

Historical Risk Factors—such as previous suicide attempts.

Be aware of Warning Signs.

According to AFSP, most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.

Warning Signs relate to a person’s Talk— about “being a burden to others,” or “feeling trapped,” or “experiencing unbearable pain,” or “having no reason to live,” or “killing themselves.”

Warning Signs relate to a person’s Mood—displaying one or more moods such as depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation, anxiety.

Warning Signs relate to a person’s Behavior—such as increased use of alcohol or drugs, aggression, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, visiting or calling people to say goodbye, giving away prized possessions, and looking for a way to kill themselves.

“Something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change.”

How to help someone who may be struggling: click here for guidance from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Click on the infographic below to download a Warning Signs checklist.