Cambria County Yellow Ribbon Program baloon release

A crowd participates in a balloon release Oct. 15, 2017, at the Inclined Plane. Participants paid respects to lost loved ones during the Cambria County Yellow Ribbon Program memory balloon release, an annual event held to remember loved ones lost to suicide.

The summer I turned 16 was the first time I thought about taking my own life. The season was thick and sticky, and I spent most of my time in a sweltering bedroom scribbling into a notebook. My best friend had left after school let out for a vacation in North Carolina, one that was extended from a few weeks to months after she fell for a boy. At the same time, the boy I had been dating simply and swiftly broke my heart in a devastatingly brief phone call.

I felt sad, lonely, and abandoned. But my typical teenage angst soon transformed into something darker, something scarier, as oppressive to my mind as the sultry summer was to my body. It started with an overwhelming dullness, a feeling that nothing mattered and nothing ever would. Then a voice in my brain began a non-stop refrain of lies impossible to ignore. She told me I was damaged goods – stupid, ugly, lazy, useless, unloveable. She said I was better off dead. No one would miss me. No one would care if I were gone.

I laid in bed for hours upon end, staring blankly at the ceiling. Sometimes I’d open a book and attempt to read, but couldn’t concentrate on the page, going over each line again and again with little comprehension. And sometimes – on the worst days – the hopelessness would overwhelm me and I’d cry for hours into a pillow, each shudder of my sobbing body emphasizing an actual, physical ache I could sense deep in my chest, a place where only warmth should be.

Soon, I found myself sitting in a bathtub full of the hottest water I could stand (somewhere along the way I had learned that this temperature would help my task go faster), my skin turning pink and sweat dripping down my brow as I stared at a Bic disposable razor. I tried in vain to break it open to release the sharpened silver caged within its yellow and white plastic. But no matter which way I desperately turned and twisted my hands, it would not break. Instead, the blade ended up nicking one of my fingers, and I reflexively grabbed it with my other hand to try to prevent the blood from flowing. As I stared at the redness swelling, then trickling down in vivid drops, I knew that I wouldn’t kill myself that day. I fished the razor from the bottom of the tub and threw it across the bathroom.

Eventually, my depression lifted as naturally as it began, the beginning of a cycle of lows and highs that I would learn in my early 20s was the hallmark of bipolar disorder. This wasn’t the last time I dealt with the darkness of suicidal ideation, but it has been many years since the last thanks to years of therapy, psychiatric treatment and prescription medications.

Looking back now with the wisdom of age and the perspective of good mental health, I realize how fortunate I am that I was not able to carry out my plan. A troubled youth, I experienced most of the risk factors that experts say can contribute to teenage suicide, including a then-undiagnosed psychiatric disorder; a history of mental illness and suicide death in my family; a lack of social support; living in a chaotic, dysfunctional, and emotionally abusive household; and dealing with the stigma associated with discussing mental health issues, much less asking for help to get treatment for one. The odds were stacked against me, but I survived.

My younger brother Justin did not. A sweet and super-sensitive kid with his own mental health battles, he died by suicide at 22 years old. He had a passion for country music new and old, loved being outdoors, and dreamed of owning a super-fast luxury sports car. He deserved to have a chance at his dreams. He deserved to live.

He is why I joined the Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force, a coalition of mental health professionals, providers, agencies, and individuals aimed at helping to educate the community about suicide and provide mental health services and crisis intervention in order to prevent more tragic deaths. It’s a group full of people focused on caring for others, some who have made mental health their life’s work and some who have gone through the tremendous loss of losing someone to suicide and are doing all they can to make sure others don’t have to experience it themselves.

Suicide deaths have been increasing for years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death nationally and is one of only three of those causes that are on the rise. In Pennsylvania, suicide rates have increased by 34 percent over the last two decades. Locally over the same period, rates have fluctuated, but Cambria County saw its highest number of suicide deaths in 2016. While there was a steady decrease in the two years following, the first half of 2019 saw nearly as many suicides as the whole of 2018.

Because of this trend, in late 2017, Behaviorial Health of Cambria County and Magellan Healthcare, the company contracted under BHoCC to provide behavioral health managed care to county residents on Medicaid, partnered to provide the first ever Cambria County Suicide Prevention Summit with keynote speaker Kevin Hines, a bestselling author, global public speaker, and award winning documentary filmmaker who attempted to take his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. His film, Suicide: The Ripple Effect, focuses on the devastating effects of suicide, but also the positive effects that advocacy, inspiration, and hope can have in helping people heal and stay alive. The event was attended by over 200 people.

As a part of this summit, several needs were identified, one being the development of a county-wide task force. Only a little over half of the 67 counties in the commonwealth have such a group. In February 2018, the Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force held its first meeting. Byron Smith, a parent suicide loss survivor who spoke at the summit, was asked to chair the group – he and his wife Donna took on the job together.

Part of what drives the Smiths, who are retired and live in Davidsville, is the experience they went through back in 2012 when their son Devin died by suicide at age 32. Devin was a happy kid with a kind heart, but as he got older he struggled with depression and years of alcohol and drug abuse.

“Eventually he wanted the pain to stop, so he took his life,” says Donna. “We probably were in shock the first six months to a year. After that we looked for some support groups and found one to go to, but the attendance was poor. Since then the group has been disbanded. Trying to find a counselor was difficult because no one was taking on patients and there wasn’t anyone at the time that dealt with loss from suicide. If there had been any information pertaining to loss suicide survivor support we would have welcomed it.”

While the Smiths agree that the Task Force is still in its infancy, “membership and commitment has been remarkable,” says Donna. “(There’s a) very good cross section of participants with agencies, legislators and private individuals and the list continues to grow.” Members of the task force include staff from BHoCC, Magellan Health, Nulton Diagnostic and Treatment Center, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Peerstar LLC, Cambria County Reach Line, PA Link to Aging and Disability Resources, Christian Home of Johnstown, Vet Advisor, Cove Forge Renewal Center, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, DuBois Vet Center, Home Nursing Agency Healing Patch, Alleghenies United Cerebral Palsy, Alternative Community Resource Program, and Highlands Health Clinic, as well as the county commisioners’ and coroner’s offices.

CCSPTF has developed a number of sub-committees, each working on a set of goals, mostly aimed at providing resources to the community. Of primary importance is awareness. Even in 2019, when phrases like trigger warnings and self care pop up on social media almost as frequently as selfies, talking about mental health and suicide can still be difficult because of years of cultural shame and stigma.

Stephanie Fry, vice-chair of the task force, knows that the need for mental health services and suicide crisis intervention is great. She’s the community relations specialist for the Cambria County Reach Line, a 24/7 hotline and mobile service that provides mental health crisis triage and brief crisis counseling as well as face-to-face assessments. In 2018, Cambria Reach received 5,424 telephone calls and made 1,404 in-person visits.

“Crisis is a needed service in this county,” she says. “Crisis is an emergency service, like ambulance or police, but specific to mental health needs. When someone is feeling severely depressed or apathetic about life and (feel) they have no one to talk to, crisis provides them a judgment-free space to talk and to get hooked up with the help and resources they need to get on the road to mental health recovery. It is life and death, just like medical doctors or nurses. Crisis workers are heroes to me. They sit with people in their darkest hour and they help them find the light out of it.”

One very visible way the task force raises awareness is through the annual Out of Darkness Walk, held in conjunction with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Last year’s event saw 228 participants in 23 teams raise nearly $13,000. This year’s walk is Sept. 7.

“AFSP Out of the Darkness Walks connect people who are passionate about suicide awareness and prevention, often because these individuals have a personal experience or connection, and they feel deeply about reducing the stigma around mental health and suicide,” says Fry, who also chairs the walk sub-committee. “These walks, including our Cambria Walk, really are an uplifting experience to honor those we’ve lost to suicide and to connect people to resources to prevent more deaths.”

Another awareness initiative that falls in line with the task force is the Cambria County Yellow Ribbon Project, a suicide prevention program administered by the coroner’s office that is presented to local school districts and other communtiy members to discuss risk factors, warning signs and coping skills. In the 2018-19 school year, the program was presented to or provided handouts to over 3,250 students.

Byron Smith has been participating as a presenter since 2013. “There have been numerous times when students have approached me to share their own stories. (It’s) just a great experience knowing that we have reached them. We hand out a card with numbers to call, local and national, so they can reach out for help. It provides them with one more tool in their tool kit to lean on when they are struggling.”

The Laurel Highlands Semicolon Project also reaches out to young people. Started by a group of students at Greater Johnstown High School during the 2017-18 school year, it spreads the message of the semicolon, a symbol of suicide prevention. The semicolon is used when an author could have ended the sentence, but chose instead to keep going. “The students wanted to spread the word throughout every high school that sometimes life is difficult. If you take a pause, things can and will get better if you talk it through and ask for help,” says Marlene Singer, a local community health expert who assists the project with grantwriting. Thanks to a grant Singer was able to obtain, the project will be able to provide a banner to every school in Cambria and Somerset county that features the Laurel Highlands Semicolon Project logo and the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Another major focus of CCSPTF is providing resources and support for loss survivors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are between six and 32 close family and friends left behind after each suicide. These survivors are not only dealing with intense grief and oftentimes guilt, they are also at risk for suicide themselves. Losing a first-degree relative makes a person almost three times more likely to take their own life. Men who lose spouses to suicide see a 46-fold increase in risk; women a 16-fold increase.

The task force is developing materials to distribute to recent loss survivors, as well as establishing a support group. Member Amy Minor is helping to work on that initiative. Her brother Jared died by suicide when he was 15 and she was 14. “For years after my brother died, I felt helpless. I wanted to do something to help prevent another person from choosing to die by suicide and also to provide support for those left behind.”

Minor is 40 now and works as a counselor at Cove Forge Renewal Center, a dual diagnosis substance abuse halfway house. “My goal (is) to help the survivors who are left behind, to let them know they are not alone. That it is okay to share memories of their loved one, and that there are people who truly understand how they feel and that we are here for them,” she says. “What I want to do is provide what I needed at the time that wasn’t readily available to us.”

Likewise, the Smiths want other survivors – especially those dealing with a recent loss – to know that there is hope. “Life will never be the same, but there will be a new normal,” says Donna. “The loss doesn’t go away, but it becomes normalized. You bring it with you as you come out the other side and move on with living your life. We deal by talking about our loss and trying to help others.”  

For Minor just being a part of the task force has continued to help with her healing. “It’s been eye-opening, to see the amount of people who have the same objectives. I feel that we are just beginning but breaking things down into what our area needs – getting rid of the stigma and getting information to get help out into the community.”

While the CCSPTF has a local focus, they will soon be benefiting from an endeavor that has a much larger reach. In May of this year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe announced the creation of a state-wide Suicide Prevention Task Force, the first of its kind. It will help coordinate the work of existing groups by developing one statewide suicide prevention plan with input from various state agencies, including the departments of Aging, Human Services, Drug and Alcohol Programs, Health, Military and Veterans Affairs, Education, Corrections, and Transportation, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. Prevent Suicide PA is a member of the state-wide task force and already provides the CCSPTF with training, conferences and guidance.

“All lives have value and worth, but there are times when it can be hard for people to see through their pain,” Gov. Wolf said in a press release announcing the initiative. “My administration will do everything we can to ensure that the people we serve and represent know that they are never alone and that systems and supports are equipped to provide help that can save lives.”

Raising awareness of suicide, providing mental health resources, and supporting loss survivors, through these goals, the Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force believes it can decrease – and even end – suicide deaths in our region.

“No one wants to die. Suicide is a means of getting rid of the pain someone is dealing with,” says Donna Smith. “Through open dialogue, awareness, and support, we can provide others with an outlet where they know it’s okay to ask for help.”