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Let's Talk Suicide Prevention

Let's Talk Suicide Prevention
Trigger warning: suicide

If you are experiencing a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also call or text the Samaritans directly at 877-870-4673. You are not alone.

I am a suicide attempt survivor, so it hit me hard when a friend's youngest sister died of suicide at the age of 13. Nobody can make the world right again in the aftermath of suicide, and when it strikes that close, you feel like you have to do something. So I decided I would honor her life by raising funds for suicide prevention by using my story as a platform. 

As a recreational athlete at the time, I applied for, was accepted, and began fundraising for the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Organization Boston Marathon team. I created "Mo Runs for Hope," the tagline that would help me keep focus through the entire process. 

With my family roots in Boston and surrounding towns, this prestigious course was always special to me. I remember the first time I saw it from the backseat of my father's car. We were trying to get to the hospital to welcome my new cousin into the world. We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic as swarms of arms and legs flailed by in the weirdest parade I had ever seen. I was young; what can I say?

Recreational sports taught me that moving my body soothes my soul, calms my mind, and allows me to feel free, in a healthy way, like nothing else ever had. 

So I set out to tell my story, honor my friend's sister's memory, and push myself physically to see what I could challenge myself to achieve.

Running to raise funds preoccupies you with two different campaigns: one to collect pledges of financial support and the second to train yourself for the actual running, which is both a physical and mental exercise. It also empowered me to open up about my story and continuous struggles while creating lifelong connections with people I wouldn't have had otherwise. It was freeing. Validating. Reassuring.

Harvard Health Publishing reports exercise is as effective as antidepressants in some cases. 

Well, I was one of those cases. My brain naturally feels better when I am active and moving my body. So I could feel a weight lifting off my shoulders on every run. I noticed the small things, the lovely things, the smell of the air, the sunlight bouncing off of cars, and deer in the front yards of houses as I ran by early mornings. 

The training is hard, but it is the easy part. It really is. You wake up and look at the calendar to see what kind of run you need that day, and you do it. 

Fundraising is much more. You know what I mean if you've ever set out to raise as much money as required to run the Boston Marathon through a charitable organization. It's all exciting and fabulous, but when fundraising, you can't take too many down days, or you'll lose momentum and will not be able to make your commitment. If that's the case, as the runner, you are financially responsible for what you don't raise. This can land you owing thousands. But by being incredibly motivated by the cause, it is easy to remain focused and moving forward; physically, mentally, and emotionally, teaching me to use similar practices in my life when not in running shoes.

The lessons from the road are many. Ask any runner. 

A Punch In the Gut

When I met my friend's mother, we would discuss how she was coping with the loss of her 13-year-old daughter to suicide. Unimaginably, this woman was going out of her way to support me through her own tragedy. We both knew the only way to bring attention to something was to get attention to it, so with her blessing, I was off and running. We spoke through text often, exchanging stories, struggles, and support, sometimes for hours, while I trained and fundraised.

I was a few months into my training when this woman, now my friend, also died by suicide. I remember getting the call and instantly feeling like I was simultaneously hit by a truck and frozen in time. I read over every message I ever sent, wondering if something was in there that pushed her and validated her ideation. Did I respond to everything she sent? Was I kind enough? Did she know how much I cared about her? Could I have done something? Did I miss a phone call? I didn't know what to do with my emotions, and I did my best to lay off the selfish thoughts about what I did or didn't do and put that emotion into pushing myself further in running and fundraising. 

Still, and genuinely, the family encouraged me to continue. So, without a doubt, that is precisely what I did, and I never looked back.

As the National Library of Medicine explains, survivors of suicide may be left to struggle with their own suicidal ideation. In fact, those who lost someone to suicide are at a higher risk of the same fate. I can't tell you how hard losing her was, so I won't try. But I found myself training to run in the memory of two people instead of one, and I was going to put all I had into every step.

For the next several months, my day job was to put one foot in front of the other to hone my fitness for the run. My other job was to put my life, struggles, and history out there for all to see. I accepted the risk of being judged while I invited everyone to follow me through months of soul-searching, support, advocacy, training, and fundraising. I am happy to say though sometimes difficult, I was successful.

Michelle Wheeler Boston Marathon Samaritans Suicide Prevention

On marathon day, I raised over $11,000 for the Samaritans with the loving support of my network and tribe.

I stood at that start line with photos of both mother and daughter pinned to my back. I added ribbons for loved ones of friends who died by suicide and who were suicide attempt survivors. The shirt was an emotional map of lives lost too soon. So, I wore that shirt to the start line and stood as tall as I could for them, me, and all those who think they are limited by mental illness.

I can't pretend to be the fastest runner or the Samaritans' biggest benefactor, but I became part of a community through that process I didn't know existed. Mental health has not been a mainstream topic until just recently. And it's because organizations like Samaritans, NAMI & American Foundations for Suicide Prevention have been and will continue to advocate, educate, and support to prevent other families from suffering the same fate. We've come a long way, but we need to do better.

The CDC would tell you that preventing suicide is a long-term, society-wide commitment. It advises a strategy of providing families financial support, stabilizing housing, ensuring access to mental health care, reducing access to lethal means, promoting connectedness, and teaching coping skills. These are all ways to minimize a leading cause of death. Unfortunately, 46,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2020 — a 30% increase over the year 2000. I will tell you that preventing suicide also requires education for everyone, not only the afflicted and affected. 

A community needs to understand mental illness is not to be feared. We are not Michael Myers. We are humans who have families, love others, and have gifts to share with the world. The more we talk about it, the more we understand and connect to one another. Human connection destroys mental illness stigma. The less stigma, the more people feel free to talk about it, feel understood, and feel connected to others. It's a simple recipe, but we all must do our part.

Suicide Prevention

When it comes to the individual in crisis, your best chance to prevent suicide is simply listening. That's mainly what the Samaritans do. They listen. According to the Lithuania chapter of the Samaritans, "Samaritan volunteers answer confidential, anonymous crisis hotlines for people that are lonely, isolated, depressed, or suicidal."

Listening may seem simple or easy, but it takes work. The Samaritan volunteers are trained to listen actively. A Samaritan volunteer will not offer advice but listen to you and reflect on your situation and feelings as you describe them. Some callers find this frustrating. But most people take it as a powerful sign that at least one other human being understands what they're going through. In our modern society, the experience of being heard is so unusual that it can often divert someone from a suicidal intent.

Active Listening

If you want to know how to help someone who is suicidal, the Samaritan experience suggests that you listen to them. I will tell you the same. But active listening is a skill that requires both learning and practice to do it effectively. So your best bet is to acquire the skill before you need it. I know change is hard but learning how to actively listen is not difficult; a quick Google search, and you're on your way. Here's a good article that describes classic Rogerian active listening and offers tips and exercises. 

But if you want to learn active listening under the guidance of experts, consider volunteering with a local chapter of the Samaritans. The Samaritans have 400 centers worldwide, so you need to do a web search to find your local Samaritans chapter. Here, for example, is the page on volunteering for the Lithuania branch.

If you commit to at least one four-hour week and an overnight shift once a month, the Samaritans will train you to be a better listener than you ever thought possible. But be warned. According to the CDC, "In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide." What that means in practical terms is that the Samaritans' phones never stop ringing. Not all callers are suicidal. Samaritans are willing to listen to anyone who feels troubled or depressed. So volunteering is something of a commitment. But it's also likely to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

There are many ways you can support folks needing mental health support. First, you can start with our extensive & growing list of resources. Then, do your research, ask your questions, and, most importantly, check in with your own mental health

If you have been affected by suicide, my heart hurts for you. As a survivor and someone who has lost loved ones to suicide, I understand the excruciating loss and painful steps through the healing process.  also see the importance of hope, keeping it in my view at all times. There is nothing easy about digging yourself up and out of the darkest days. But with hope, anything is possible. I'm here to remind you that no matter how far you've fallen, you can Phoenix the F*ck out of Yourself each and every time.

I reran Boston for Samaritans in 2019. With every step, I reminded myself how much the Samaritans and organizations like them help if people reach out. It is the job of the mental health community and those in it to continue to speak, stand up for ourselves, and seek support when needed.

Move Your Mind

I am not a doctor, not a scientist, not a researcher. I am, however, a human who has been living for years, self-aware of my mental illness. I have learned ways to ease my mind and my symptoms. Though I haven't been able to run in some time due to injury, I have found other outlets. Sometimes I write poetry. Sometimes I paint. My energy and motivation are poured into my business, where I can be both a creative and an advocate. I hope to show front and center we can have a debilitating mental illness, but we can use it to inspire, create, and educate in honor of those we lost and prevent others from the same fate. 

So, speak up, advocate for yourself, and don't quit until you get the support you need. Your life has value, and you are never alone.

Your life has value. Period. 

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