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    Thursday, July 25, 2024

    On suicide and grief: Conversation is key

    Ann Dagle in the main room Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, of Brian's Healing Hearts Center for Hope and Healing that she started in East Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Ann Dagle works at her desk Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, at the Brian's Healing Hearts Center for Hope and Healing that she started in East Lyme. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Ann Irr Dagle has made a life out of talking about suicide.

    “It’s OK not to be OK,” she said.

    That’s what she tells people in support groups taking place on couches in front of the fireplace of Brian’s Healing Hearts Center for Hope and Healing on Main Street in Niantic.

    It’s what she tells people on the statewide speaking circuit in her capacity as one of three chairmen on the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board. It’s what she tells high school athletes who have been conditioned to think they always have to be strong.

    Dagle’s son, Brian, died by suicide in 2011 while a sophomore at Castleton University in Vermont. The East Lyme High School graduate and lacrosse player was known for his school spirit.

    Initiatives through Brian’s Healing Hearts and the Brian F. Dagle Memorial Foundation now include Lax2Live. Playing out during the spring lacrosse season, the program asks high school and college players to start their own difficult conversations on mental health and suicide so nobody has to suffer in silence.

    “It’s OK to ask for help,” she recounted telling players from 20 teams on this year’s Lax2Live schedule. “Check in on your friends if you think they’re struggling. There’s help out there.”

    Her message: Mental health is no different than physical health.

    “If you hurt yourself physically, you get help immediately,” she said. “You have coaches, you have trainers. They’ll take care of you. If you’re not feeling good mentally, you need the same support.”

    When it comes to preventing suicide and easing the grieving process for those surviving suicide loss, talking about it is the key.

    The signs

    Dagle, a practitioner of the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) method, conducts training for anybody looking to learn about the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to help.

    “It’s just like CPR, but for mental health,” she said.

    Though Dagle is not a licensed therapist or counselor, she has received a certification in grief and death studies from the Center for Loss in Colorado, is on the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board and has worked closely with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to research suicide.

    She said the questioning starts when someone is in crisis or if there are concerns they might be in crisis.

    “We teach you how to ask that difficult question: Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about suicide?” she said.

    The national, independent QPR Institute said clues can be found in people who express they feel trapped with no way out, have no purpose in life, are angry or irritable, or talk about hopelessness and despair.

    The warning signs can be direct or indirect, according to Dagle.

    The institute gives examples of stark verbal clues including “I’ve decided to kill myself” or “I wish I were dead.”

    Less direct verbal clues could include “I just can’t go on” or “pretty soon you won’t have to worry about me.”

    Other signs are behavioral, such as a previous suicide attempt, acquiring a gun or stockpiling pills, or self-destructive acts like cutting oneself. Clues revolving around a person’s situation could include job loss, the end of a relationship, the death of someone close, diagnosis with a terminal disease and financial problems.

    Dagle said the signs could be as seemingly simple as someone giving away their possessions.

    “You’re thinking ‘Aren’t they sweet? They want me to have this,’” she said. “But they're not going to need it, so they give it away.”

    Other signs can be difficult to decipher because they seem positive, Dagle said. She gave the example of people acting happy and social when they weren’t like that previously.

    “Some people have already made a decision, unfortunately, to end their lives,” she said. “And so they're relieved because they have the decision made.”

    What to say

    East Lyme resident and real estate agent Suzanne Szupiany said there weren’t a lot of signals before her husband of almost 25 years, John, took his life in 2014.

    “He was feeling deeply depressed most of his life and I didn't know it,” she said. “I don't even know if he knew it. Nobody ever suspected it with him.”

    She lamented not recognizing her husband’s depression earlier. Now a grief support group facilitator at Brian’s Healing Hearts, she said it’s taken her nine years to let go of the guilt.

    Szupiany leads two support groups from the yellow house on Main Street: One for those who have lost a partner and another for those who have lost a partner to suicide.

    She took the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Facilitator Training several years ago when Dagle asked her if she’d be interested in leading some groups.

    “I felt it would help me, and if I could help others going through the same thing, that would benefit both sides,” she said.

    Szupiany said her role is to facilitate conversations rather than provide therapy. She described grief, like suicide prevention, as a matter of talking it through ― or, sometimes, of simply listening.

    “The groups are their safe place,” she said of those who attend her support groups. “What is said there, stays there. You can grieve, you can cry, you can sit there and not say anything.”

    For those who wonder what to say to someone who has experienced suicide loss, Szupiany advises people to be sensitive. She said one significant false assumption is that because someone looks good, they’re doing well.

    She warned against comments that suggest there should be an appropriate duration for grief, such as “you look great, you must be getting over it.”

    She said the most important thing is being there. She recommended low-key overtures, especially around the milestone dates such as the birthday and death date of the survivors’ loved one.

    “Take a walk on the boardwalk,” she said. “Take them out for coffee. And if they say no, say ‘OK, I’ll touch base with you in another week.’”

    Talk, text or chat

    Also reflecting the importance of talking about suicide is the expanded 988 national suicide and crisis lifeline launched last summer. Call volume since then has doubled, according to Dagle.

    The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services said federal support for the rollout of the 988 initiative, which was formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, went from $24 million to $432 million in 2022.

    Dagle emphasized people don’t need to be in crisis to use the Lifeline. Anyone looking for someone to talk to about mental health and suicide concerns can call or text the number. There’s also a chat function online at 988lifeline.org.

    Dagle said calling 988 or the state 211 crisis intervention line will connect people with the help they need. Studies have shown people who reach out to the Lifeline are significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed and more hopeful.

    Those same benefits can hold true even if the person involved in the conversation isn’t a professional.

    She said talking about mental health or suicidal feelings can bring a sense of relief to someone who is struggling. That’s when the barriers can begin to come down – though not always immediately.

    “It may take some persuasion,” she said. “But at least you started the conversation.”

    e.regan@theday.com

    Help is available 24/7 for anyone with suicidal thoughts. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or text HOME to 741741. Lean more about suicide prevention at www.preventsuicidect.org.

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