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Daily Journal
     September 13, 2022      #63-256 KDJ
 
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Mental health advocates speak out during Suicide

By Stephanie Markham
smarkham@daily-journal.com


The year is filled with plenty of celebratory and honorary months, but the month of September is a particularly somber one.

September is known as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and though the subject matter is heavy, the message is an important one: You are not alone.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September is a time used to raise awareness of the stigmatized and often taboo topic of suicide prevention.

The month is used to shift public perception, spread hope and share vital information to people affected by suicide, with the goal of making sure resources and help are available to anyone who needs it, according to the NAMI website.

A total of 45,979 people died by suicide in the United States in 2020, the equivalent of one death every 11 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That same year, there were 1,362 deaths by suicide in Illinois, the CDC reports.

In Kankakee County, deaths by suicide have totaled: 14 deaths so far in 2022; 10 deaths in 2021; 13 deaths in 2020; 19 deaths in 2019; four deaths in 2018; 19 deaths in 2017; and nine deaths in 2016, according to the Kankakee County Coroner’s office.

RAISING AWARENESS

Jake Smith, 25, of Manteno, recently walked 24 miles through the streets of Manteno to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.

The walk is now an annual tradition, as Sept. 3 marked Smith’s third straight year of completing it.

Each year, Smith has seen community support grow little by little, he said, ranging from people walking alongside him to honking their car horns or offering words of encouragement as he passes by.

Supporters Shaun Brav and Angelina Urban both completed the entire 24-mile trek with Smith this year and last. Daniel Gerber, Jason Rivera, Sylis Newman and Darrel Boren walked with the group as well.

Smith began in 2020 with the intent of walking 21 miles in honor of the age of the oldest suicide victim in Manteno; however, his tracking app took him on a 24-mile journey instead, and the tradition has stuck.

“This is personal for me,” Smith said. “I suffer from depression and anxiety myself, and I have learned that by speaking up and telling my story, others have been positively impacted by it.”

Smith said his struggles with depression and anxiety began as a young child in school.

The most important message he wants others to take away from his awareness walks is that they are not alone.

Though he felt exhausted at points along his walk and had doubts he would finish, Smith and company completed the walk in about eight hours. Including breaks, they were out for nine and a half hours.

Smith said he was motivated to keep going when remembering the struggles of people impacted by suicide, including those in Manteno.

Though he hasn’t known any suicide victims personally, it hits home when someone in his community decides to end their life, he said.

“It’s happened so many times, especially for Manteno being a small community,” he said.

THE SAM MYERS FOUNDATION

Brandon and Kathi Myers, the Manteno parents who founded the Samuel R. Myers Foundation for Suicide and Mental Health Awareness, spoke Friday during the Mental Health Network of Kankakee County’s monthly roundtable meeting in Riverside Hospital’s dining room.

The Myers’ son died by suicide at age 19 after struggling with mental health issues including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

“When our son passed away in December of 2016, we decided we had two choices,” Brandon Myers said. “We could just kind of sit in our own depression, our own sorrow, and [deal] with it individually as a family, or we felt like we could step out and actually be a catalyst.”

Brandon said the foundation’s goals are to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, connect people with mental health resources and share their family’s story in the hopes that others don’t have to experience their pain.

Kathi Myers noted they were “an average family,” and she and her husband were always active in their children’s lives.

Some have the misconception that mental illness is always the result of being from an abusive family or a broken home, Kathi said.

However, that is simply not the case. Mental health problems can affect people from all walks of life.

“What we really want people to understand is that mental health just does not discriminate,” she said.

ASKING FOR HELP

Kathi shared that a classmate of Sam’s recently told her that Sam was the only person at school to check on her and offer comfort after she returned from a hospital stay due to mental health issues.

“That’s the kind of heart that Sam had, and I think it’s because he knew that feeling,” Kathi said. “He knew that feeling of not being OK and not being able to say, ‘I’m not OK,’ because he didn’t. He hid it from everybody.”

Kathi noted that Sam had seen multiple psychiatrists and counselors and tried several combinations of medications for his conditions.

She stressed that people should be open to seeing different counselors to find one they “match” and feel comfortable with.

“He truly felt like his brain was killing him. He would say, ‘I can’t live like this for 60 years. I’m not going to be able to do it,’” Kathi recalled about her son. “As parents, we regret that we didn’t know that those were all signs that he was headed that way, to suicide.”

Kathi said one of the most important things for people to remember is to speak up if they are having problems.

“If you don’t, nobody knows that you’re not OK,” she said. “Always make sure you reach out to someone if you’re not well, because nobody can help you if they don’t know you’re suffering.”

Kankakee County deaths by suicide

Note: The Kankakee County Coroner's office provided the following data. Each year is based upon the fiscal year calendar (Ex: Year 2016 represents Dec. 1, 2015 - Nov. 30, 2016).

2016 — 9 deaths [7 male, 2 female] [age ranges 22 to 86 years old]

2017 — 19 deaths [15 male, 4 female] [age ranges 19 to 64 years old]

2018 — 4 deaths [4 male, 0 female] [age ranges 32 to 73 years old]

2019 — 19 deaths [17 male, 2 female] [age ranges 25 to 85 years old]

2020 — 13 deaths [12 male, 1 female] [age ranges 19 to 86 years old]

2021 — 10 deaths [10 male, 0 female] [age ranges 37 to 70 years old]

2022 (to date) — 14 deaths [11 male, 3 female] [age ranges 12 to 67 years old]

For help

Earlier this year, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline changed its phone number to 988 and the website changed to 988lifeline.org. Through both mediums, those struggling with thoughts of suicide can call/message with volunteers who are trained to help.

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