Lessons from football star's suicide: 'Stigma kills'

Conversations about taboo subject could help avert tragedy

October 12, 2010 

  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention will hold the 2010 Out of the Darkness Community Walks fundraising walk and ceremony from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 24 at the University of South Carolina Beaufort's Hilton Head Gateway campus. Registration for the walk begins at 1 p.m. The walks held nationwide help raise money for the foundation's research and educational programs.

    Details: Pat John, patjohn@hargray.com,
    843-540-1841; www.outofthedarkness.org

As stunning and sad as a high-profile suicide such as Kenny McKinley's can be, suicide prevention groups hope the former University of South Carolina football star's death can prompt life-saving conversations.

Simply causing people to talk about an all-too-often taboo subject is an important first step.

"Stigma kills," said John A. Brown Jr., president of the S.C. chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "It keeps you from asking for help. Sometimes it keeps a family member from asking for help."

It shouldn't.

Mental health problems are like any other illness, said Brown, who also is director of forensics and crisis intervention for the Columbia Area Mental Health Center and takes medication for depression.

Someone who breaks a leg is taken to a doctor without a second thought.

The same should be done for someone with a seriously bruised psyche, Brown said.

People need to be willing to overcome the hurdles -- whether personal, societal or institutional -- to get help. Just talking about suicide could greatly reduce the nearly 34,000 suicide deaths nationwide each year.

Authorities focus publicly about homicides in a community, but little is said about suicides.

Yet there were many more suicide deaths -- 529 -- than homicide deaths -- 381 -- in South Carolina in 2007, the most recent mortality data available from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Depression, often the underlying cause of suicide, is among the most successfully treated mental illnesses, Brown said. Yet too many people don't ask for help.

Brown has a friend whose son committed suicide. She had tried to get him help, but he refused. "Mom, if people find out, they'll think I'm crazy," he told her.

Brown and others are devoted to changing that attitude.

"We must fight the stigma that keeps people from seeking help," Brown said.

There is no indication that McKinley actively sought help.

Most of those around the Denver Broncos said they were stunned the young man with the big smile might have been depressed over his football future after a second major knee surgery in a few months. But at least some friends in Denver told police McKinley had mentioned he "should just kill himself" after the most recent surgery.

Friends said they put little stock in that comment or subsequent statements McKinley made about not knowing what to do without football.

McKinley always had been incredibly upbeat, the kind of person who lights up a room when he walks in.

Candice Morgan, a third-year doctoral student in social work at the University of South Carolina, was well-aware of her family's history with mood disorders. Yet she couldn't stop her father from killing himself a little more than a year ago.

"He always said he would do it, so people weren't all that surprised," Morgan said. "People ask why we let him get away with it. Well, he was a strong-willed person. He would laugh me off and say he was a strong person and didn't want anyone's help."

Many of Morgan's family members have threatened to kill themselves, but none had followed through on the threats until her father did.

That's typical.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates people are 25 times as likely to attempt suicide as they are to complete suicide.

But friends and family members shouldn't play those odds. They need to react to every threat, subtle or obvious.

"If someone says, 'Man, I feel like killing myself,' make it important," Morgan said. "If someone says, 'I don't think I can make it through another day,' make it an issue."

Mentioning thoughts of suicide is the most obvious of the warning signs. Among the less obvious signs are increased depression, anxiety, hopelessness, self-doubt and use of alcohol or drugs; dramatic mood changes and pulling back from family and friends; giving away prized possessions; and changes in eating, sleeping and performance at work.

If someone you know is showing those signs, talk to them. But do it without being judgmental.

As Morgan says, suicide "is a normal thought, and it's not bad. Doing it is bad, but thinking about it is normal."

Once you determine a loved one needs help, the institutional hurdles remain. If the threat is immediate, hustle to the nearest hospital emergency room or state mental health clinic.

Getting someone to make that first visit with medical professionals can be tough, and it's often just the first challenge. Finding the proper resources for each case, determining the proper medications and navigating the medical insurance maze can be incredibly difficult.

"The key is patience," said Helen Pridgen, chairwoman of the South Carolina chapter of the National Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "If you go one place and don't get help, don't give up. Keep looking for help. Stick it out with that person."

Anna Bigham fought those battles for months with her brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Mills Palmer Bigham.

Bigham returned to Columbia from two tours in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. His sister helped him reach out for help, but private hospitals wouldn't accept him, saying as a vet with no private insurance he should be going to a Veterans Administration Hospital. But the VA system was too overwhelmed to give him the help he needed when he needed it, Anna Bigham said.

"I'd take him down there (to the VA Hospital), and they would put him in a six-week line," she said. "I'm smart. I'm good on the Internet. If I couldn't get help for him, what's everybody else doing?"

Her brother took his life in October 2009.

Bigham pumped her grief into something positive, starting an organization called Hidden Wounds, aimed at stemming the tide of soldier suicides. Columbia-based Hidden Wounds has put together a network of trained counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists to help veterans until they can get aid from the overloaded VA system.

"I grilled (VA officials) right after my brother died," Bigham said. "They are overwhelmed and understaffed. We do whatever we can to help them."

While Bigham dealt with her anguish by starting Hidden Wounds, many surviving family members find comfort in organized support groups. The largest such group in Columbia meets the first Tuesday of each month at Westminster Presbyterian Church. But advocates want to get support groups formed in every county.

Morgan said her first support group meeting "was better for me than the funeral was. Nobody brought up why he died at the funeral. The support group was a nice way for survivors to come together and talk about things."

Pridgen, whose son Clay committed suicide 10 years ago, is a huge advocate of survivor support groups.

"After (Clay's) death, I had so many questions, like so many survivors," Pridgen said. "I went on this quest. I started reading everything I could on the subject and getting involved in survivor groups. I connected with folks who were going through the same thing."

Five years ago, Pridgen stepped up her advocacy and organized the first suicide survivors walk in the Midlands. The event has grown to include walks this year in Spartanburg, Columbia (Sunday), Hilton Head Island (Oct. 24) and Charleston (Nov. 7). Called Out of the Darkness Community Walks, the hope is to shed light on a subject that gets too little attention until there's a high-profile suicide.

"I have a passion for trying to prevent this loss of life," Pridgen said. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else."

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