JOHNSTOWN — Don’t wait to get help for yourself, a family member or friend with mental health issues or thoughts of suicide. It seems like common sense, but it often does not happen.
That was the message from health experts and community leaders at Wednesday night’s forum on mental health and suicide prevention at Johnstown council chambers during National Mental Health Awareness Month.
The speakers — local leaders in the community’s health, school, church, police and governmental fields — said the stigma attached to mental health issues prevents important discussions of serious problems, allowing the problem to intensify over time, sometimes ending in tragedy.
Since January 2020, Licking County has had 31 completed suicides and 82 reports of suicide threat calls to 2-1-1.
Penny Sitler, executive director of Mental Health America of Licking County, explained the disconnect people have between physical and mental health.
“I want you to think about what would happen if you waited 10 years to get help for a cancer diagnosis,” Sitler said. “In many cases, you would no longer be here, right? Well, on average, people wait 10 years from the onset of signs and symptoms for mental health issues until they’re diagnosed. And, by then, they’re often at Stage 4.”
Sitler said MHA shared its curriculum Signs of Suicide for the first time this year at Johnstown High School. Through a depression screening of 371 students, MHA identified 42 students in need of a follow-up and 27 students who said they thought seriously about killing themselves or attempted it.
“It was really an important thing for us to be able to break through and get that education into your school system,” Sitler said. “I believe we’re saving lives by doing that SOS training.”
Johnstown Mayor Chip Dutcher said, “We’ve lost some members of our community to suicide. It’s not easy for me to say, but we have to acknowledge it and just like COVID, deal with it, move on and hopefully we can help somebody else and prevent additional suicides.”
Sitler said that without help, untreated mental health issues can eventually lead to hospitalization, incarceration, a much-reduced quality of life, or suicide.
“We really want to change the conversation, so that people are willing to talk about mental health out in the open. We want to break that stigma down. Quit being embarrassed by it or afraid of it.”
“If you see something that’s unusual, if you see someone’s behavior changing, please talk to them about it. Help them get help.”
Some of the speakers shared their own struggles, hoping to demonstrate the importance of opening up about a topic nobody wants to discuss.
Johnstown Police Chief Chief Abe Haroon explained his traumatic experience as a youth.
“Suicide,” Haroon said. “It’s tough. It’s a taboo word. Nobody really wants to talk about it. Emotions and rationale. There’s a distinct correlation between the two. If your emotions are high, your rationale is low.
“I know this because I am a survivor of suicide. When I was a teen-ager, I almost made a very poor decision, myself. And, thus, I am very passionate about this topic.”
Haroon said all of his officers have been provided extensive training and all are crisis intervention specialists.
Licking County Health Commissioner Chad Brown said, “I’ve lost two friends in the past five years to suicide. You look at yourself and think you should have done more. It’s devastating to their family and friends.”
Johnstown Village Manager Jim Lenner shared that he needed to seek out a counselor five years ago to deal with the stress he was feeling.
“I needed to do something,” Lenner said. “I spoke to a counselor and regularly done so since then. I couldn’t believe the amount of weight lifted off my shoulders when I got the help I needed. It was transformational, for me.”
Jennifer Herr, a counselor with Johnstown Monroe Local School District, said it’s a relief when parents take action to help their children.
“I have students coming to me with some really tough things going on,” Herr said. “Some of the best endings are when we pass on the packet of information we’ve gathered and send it to parents and parents are willing and eager to go get help for their kids.
“That’s a good day, when parents are on board and they are willing to look past stigmas they sometimes hold and they say, if my kid needs help, we’re going to go get help.”
Johnstown Presbyterian Church Pastor Kevin Heckathorn, who is a licensed counselor, said people often seek out clergy for assistance with mental health issues, but the response has historically been insufficient, sometimes shaming the parishioner instead of getting them help.
“Largely, in my experience, pastors are not trained very well,” Heckathorn said. “That’s getting better. It has over time. The communication from the church has been that it’s somehow a lack of faith or insufficient faith that causes that, or the problem is such that if they only had more faith, it would fix it.
“So we really need to get rid of that nonsense and realize that mental health is not an indicator of poor faith or lack of faith.”
Dr. Elizabeth Yoder, a psychiatrist with Licking Memorial Behavioral Health Services and Addiction Medicine, said LMH plans to hire a child psychiatrist, but added that there is a shortage of people in the field.
“We definitely recognize there’s a need, especially when kids are discharged from Nationwide Children’s, and we want to keep them in services in Licking County because it’s just easier. It’s better when we can keep them close to home.”
Warning signs for suicide
Mental Health America of Licking County lists the following as potential warning signs for suicide:
* Talking about suicide, death, dying, or the afterlife.
* Feeling sad, bored, hopeless, or depressed.
* Making verbal threats such as, “You’d be better off without me,” or “I won’t be a problem for you much longer,” or “Maybe I won’t be around.”
* Change in personality, such as becoming suddenly cheerful after a period of depression.
* Showing little interest in the future.
* Making major changes in the looks or not taking care of him/herself (if usually neat, might look sloppy).
* Acting in rash, hostile ways; often expressing rage.
* Giving or throwing away favorite belongings.
Printed in the Newark Advocate on May 21, 2021.