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Local advocates speak out during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month after spike during pandemic

When most of the world shut down in March 2020, life as we knew it changed drastically — education, work routines and social activities all shifted to safer, socially distanced methods that isolated Americans across the map.

As everyone hunkered down to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals experienced a different public health crisis, an alarming spike in suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. 

A survey of 5,470 adults in June 2020 found that a staggering 40.9% of respondents were experiencing mental or behavioral health conditions, like anxiety or depression, which are both risk factors for suicidal ideation and suicide. That same month, 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed reported having serious suicidal thoughts related to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ryan DeCosta, 20, of East Lyme has struggled with suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts since he was 12 years old. DeCosta now volunteers to help spread awareness about suicide prevention programs and help available.

DeCosta has attempted suicide more than a dozen times, he said.

"I almost died so many times," DeCosta recalled. "At the hospital they kept saying, 'you're a living miracle.'"

The month of September is recognized as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time meant to raise awareness about the prevalence of suicide and how it can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality or background, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness.

DeCosta and other local survivors of suicidal ideation and those who work with area support centers are speaking out to share their stories and let everyone know that help is available.

On Sunday, the sixth annual Bright Musical Festival was held in Niantic at McCook Point Park. The music festival aims to provide resources and conversations to destigmatize suicide and mental health. It was founded by a group of Waterford parents concerned about the increase in suicides in America, especially among teens and young adults. 

DeCosta volunteered at the event and hopes to continue sharing his story to advocate for mental wellness, acceptance and healing. He is involved with the Brian Dagle Foundation in Niantic, founded in honor of Dagle, a 19-year-old who died by suicide in 2011.

The foundation is "dedicated to the healing of grieving adults as well as community education on suicide prevention and awareness."

DeCosta is a transgender, nonbinary person. DeCosta advocates for transgender and LGBTQ rights and mental health awareness and destigmatization in the southeastern Connecticut region.

For more than a decade, DeCosta said he has struggled with suicidal ideation. For DeCosta, the thoughts are chronic.

“They’re just kind of always there in the back of my mind. They never stop,” he said. 

After years of therapy, group counseling, inpatient treatment, a gender transition and ongoing mental health treatment, DeCosta is using his story to help destigmatize mental illness and suicidal ideation. The Dagle Foundation has helped DeCosta with group therapy and participating in events like the Jingle Bell Run for suicide prevention.

Now, he talks openly about his struggle. But he said that for years while having chronic suicidal thoughts, he kept it a secret.

“I was battling it for a very long time and I would keep it from people, because I was ashamed of it," DeCosta said. "There’s a stigma that if you’re talking about suicide that you’re attention seeking. That it's something fake or less valid than physical health struggles.” 

Now he hopes to show other people that his struggles are valid and that help, and hope, are available. 

“I like to bring awareness to it, because if even one person hears it and knows they are not alone, it makes a huge difference, just to know the world is not as lonely as you think, and other people are going through the same thing as you,” DeCosta said. 

DeCosta hopes to help anyone struggling with suicidal ideation but knows that it's a problem that is especially prevalent for others in the LGBTQ community.

Suicide rates are significantly higher for LGBTQ people — LGBTQ young people are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing suicide prevention and crisis intervention services to LGBTQ+ people under age 25. 

DeCosta and Polly Fuhrmeister, who is also transgender, try to advocate for mental wellness amongst the young LGBTQ communities in the area. 

Fuhrmeister said that when her stepson died by suicide 11 years ago, it changed her family and her life forever. Fuhrmeister’s stepson was 20 years old when he ended his life by jumping from a bridge, she said. She asked that his name not be used. 

“It changed all of us completely and utterly,” she said. 

His death made Fuhrmeister, her wife and their other children, who lived in Waterford at the time, realize what was important in life and what made them happy. She and her wife ended their marriage shortly after, she said. And Fuhrmeister decided to live her life more authentically, coming out as transgender. 

“In some ways it was a new beginning for me, because I realized that life is short and I needed to live my life,” said Fuhrmeister. “And it also left me with a very deep appreciation for the family that I still had and for my life every single day.” 

Fuhrmeister now chairs the youth program for OutCT, helping to connect young LGBT people in the community. She said one of the reasons she works with youth is because of her stepson.

“Having seen it firsthand, I don’t want it to happen to anyone else," she said. "If I can prevent it from happening to another family then it’s all worth it.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month also is a time to shift the public perception around suicide and open a dialogue so people are comfortable seeking help.

At Sound Community Services in New London, staff members are trained to talk about suicidal ideation, recognize the signs and risk factors and connect people with services that can help save their lives.

Lisa Moon, chief program officer at Sound Community Services, said that the amount of loss during the pandemic — loss of social interaction, loss of income, loss of child care, loss of employment, loss of loved ones who died from the virus — has taken a toll on the community. And in some cases, it’s increased suicidal thoughts.

“I think people have contemplated it a lot more during the pandemic," she said. "There's been a lot more suicidal ideation, because people are struggling. They can’t figure out a way to survive." 

The best way to help, she said, is to talk about it, to check in on people who might be struggling and ask them how they’re feeling. If someone does express suicidal ideation, said Moon, get them help from a professional rather than trying to discern the severity yourself.

“Always get help, get that unbiased opinion," Moon said, "because when you’re so close to a situation you can’t always see the whole picture for yourself. Call the suicide hotline. Take somebody to the emergency department. Don’t put yourself in a situation of deciding when to take something seriously.” 

She stressed that people shouldn’t be afraid of asking tough questions in order to determine if someone needs that professional help.

“I think people think that if you bring up suicide, you're going to make someone suicidal, and that's a myth," she said. "Talking about it and raising awareness helps. It gives people the courage to say something. It gives them an outlet. It gives them an avenue.” 

She said oftentimes, people who are struggling with suicidal ideation just need someone to offer them help during their darkest moments. Moon said that asking someone whether they’re suicidal will lead to getting them help, not push them over the edge. 

“They’re already there, and what you could do is actually save their lives by asking the questions,” she said. 

Help is available 24/7 for anyone with suicidal thoughts. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is at (800) 273-8255 or call 211. Local resources are available through Sound Community Services, (860) 439-6400.

t.hartz@theday.com

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