Cave City has endured three losses in a short time frame, as well as the death of a student who recently graduated and the suicide of a father of one of the school's students. Parents LaVonna Davis and Gina Lovins organized the meeting, and enlisted the assistance of Steven Blackwood, a father whose son took his life in 2008.
The group discussed the trickle down effects the deaths have caused at the school, including depression, even in much younger students and sought the advice of others in effectively dealing with the issue.
Some expressed concern that the suicides would become accepted and even glamorized by the younger students. Junior class president, Whitney Rogers said, "I am worried the younger kids will see the suicides as cool, after seeing all the attention they get and tee shirts made in their (victims) honor." The suicides led the group to formulate a long-term plan to address the issues that lead to suicide -- including recognizing the signs early enough to intervene and prevent tragedy, through both counseling and increasing sensitivity to depression.
Many said they did not see any signs of the impending suicides that have forever changed the lives of families, friends, classmates and teachers. Blackwood explained, "You can either be a part of the reason or a part of the cure."
Since losing his only son, Blackwood has used his experience to help others recognize the signs of depression that lead to suicide. He is also a strong advocate for suicide prevention legislation at both the state and national level, and served as a field advisor on the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. He explained, at the time of his son's death, Arkansas was one of only three states with no formulated suicide prevention plan. This was due in part to lack of governmental funding. Through lobbying efforts and advocacy, Blackwood and the foundation helped establish one of the nation's first statewide online crisis chat services in 2010. They were also able to assist in establishing a statewide suicide prevention network, which has won two national awards. A foundation was also established in the honor of his son. The Alex Blackwood Foundation is a non-profit organization which works closely with other organizations such as the Arkansas Crisis Prevention Center to help others prevent the tragedy and senseless and preventable loss Blackwood and his family have endured.
Blackwood explained the negative stigma associated with the words "mental illness" and said, many times, due to the social acceptance of the term, it is used interchangeably the word depression. He pointed out that depression is an easily curable illness, but because, "The brain is sick, it isn't as acceptable as if one has something like, say, breast cancer." The lack of physical indicators of the illness make it hard to self diagnose. This, coupled with society's negative impression of "mental illness" and potentially being labeled such things as "crazy," causes many to fail to talk to peers about their feelings. Blackwood said, "If, during that moment of opportunity, before someone decides to take their life, they have someone to either talk to or to refer them to, the possibility of the person actually going through with the suicide are very slim."
Health statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that 80 percent of people go through periods of depression in their lifetimes. With modern medicine, the illness is as treatable as any type of physical illness. The problem, many meeting goers concurred, lays in the need for acceptance of depression by society as an illness not a character flaw in the individual. Blackwood explained to the large group that, as parents and role models in student's lives, being part of the cure is the best way to reduce the alarming number of suicides that occur within in the state. This can only be done through awareness and education.
Last year, 400 Arkansans took their lives. The Alex Blackwood Foundation strives to help break the silence about depression and suicide through networking resources to save lives.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds. The Centers for Disease Control indicate the number of suicides in the United States have increased annually since 2004. Of those who take their lives, over 90 percent have a diagnosable and treatable condition that has gone unrecognized.
In Arkansas, 14.6 individuals per 100,000 will take their lives each year, a number is higher than the national average of 12. The risk to males is five times higher than females and white males have the highest risk. Suicide is also the leading cause of death to white college students in the southern states.
Armed with these statistics, Blackwood explained the importance of the community as a whole, stepping up and helping reduce these numbers through education, intervention and awareness.
Robert Hutchison, with Health Resources of Arkansas (HRA), explained how his organization can fit into the plan by offering counseling sessions and educational programs. HRA can also offer referrals to other crisis intervention centers and counseling services. Blackwood referred those interested to attend ASIST training sessions
By the end of the meeting, a group had agreed to meet and take part in training sessions offered through the foundation. Blackwood said the ASIST training is beneficial to everyone from teachers and other school officials to parents and community and church leaders who want to be able to recognize danger signs.
Hutchison told those attending that HRA had agreed to pay the $150 fee for training for three members of the school staff. Once trained, these people can create a ripple effect within the community and help educate others. Blackwood suggested those seeking to be trained to counsel those with depression should seek the help of civic and community organizations and businesses for funding for the classes. He said his organization will help in any way possible.
"Let's pull together as a community. It is not what we know, but what we don't know that will help us." Blackwood told the group. The community plans hold focus group meetings to come up with local ideas to promote education and awareness of the serious issue, and hopefully end the suicide cycle at Cave City. The meetings are open to the public and everyone is welcome to attend.
For those who feel they are suicidal or know someone they feel is in danger, assistance is available.
1-800-273-8255 is the main line for the Arkansas Suicide Prevention Task Force. Other contact numbers include 1-888-274-7472, an adult crisis help line. A teen line is also available for intervention at 1-800-798-8336.
Suicide can be prevented. While some suicides occur without outward warning, most suicidal people give warnings.
Warning signs include: Signs of serious depression, unrelenting low mood, pessimism and hopelessness. Signs of depression include, anxiety, psychical pain and inner tension, withdrawal, sleep problems, increased alcohol and/or other drug use, recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks, threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die. Those who plan to take their lives will begin making a plan which includes such things as: giving away prized possessions, sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm, obtaining other means of killing oneself, such as poisons or medications and unexpected rage or anger.
Blackwood explained the crises that usually precede suicide are often recognizable and treatable. Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. One can help prevent suicide through early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses.
Besides the town hall meetings and implementing an action plan, crisis counselors are being made available to the students and faculty of the Cave City Schools through Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Grief counselors met with seniors and freshman Feb. 8 at Cave City High School and fifth graders. They took written questions from the students so none of the other classmates would recognize the concerns.
The counseling sessions will continue to help the students deal with loss.