Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Avon Lake, Suicide and Ignorance

    The headline in the paper spelled out this tragedy: “Avon Lake Girl’s Suicide prompts schools to offer counseling.”
     A 14 year old student at Avon Lake high school became a parent’s worst nightmare, as she ended her life by her own hands. Though little is known about this young lady, she joins an ever increasing number of students that end their life in such a drastic way. It is a death that is nearly always misunderstood, and almost exclusively linking to some form of depression. It is the third leading cause of death in high school students.
     The thoughts and prayers of everyone should be with the family, as they struggle to understand this death. Like many others, they will spend countless hours trying to make sense of this untimely death, and search for answers. Sadly, the answers to those questions may never be discovered. Many advocates, myself included, experience losses such as hers as if we were close friends, because we share a common bond. We all hope the family and friends find peace and a way to move on from this tragedy.
    All of this reminds me of the time several years ago, that I was trying to open some doors of awareness with the leaders of Avon Lake. After several conversations, I was left bewildered at such Neanderthal and outright prejudicial thinking that anyone in positions of power could ever possess.
     The first contact was with a high ranking school administrator. I approached him about doing a mental health and suicide awareness program. His response was a bit unsettling as he claimed “we have no need for those types of programs.” As I mentioned earlier, suicide is the third leading cause of death in people at the high school level, and he saw no need for more education and awareness? This leaves one to wonder why he felt that way.
     Next up was the mayor’s office, and it was here that I heard the most outrageous comment ever used to describe people afflicted with a disease. This former mayor was blunt in his assertion that he “did not want mentally ill people living in Avon Lake!”
     Avon Lake, a moderately affluent suburb with a population of over 22,000, would have over 3,500 people who suffer from a mental illness. So with that in mind, I asked this man if he planned on one day goose stepping all these people out of his community the way Hitler did back during the time of the Holocaust. With that question, this strange guy hung up the phone.
     Next on the list was some city council members, and they were just as ignorant.
     When I questioned the first one, and asked him about the mayors comments, he answered, “ I was a combat pilot so I know all about mental illness!” Now being a combat pilot is a commendable and impressive accomplishment, however, as I spoke with him, it was evident that he was just being arrogant and ignorant. He found nothing improper with comments from the mayor and, in fact, laughed about them. It makes one wonder if he flew some of his missions without oxygen at high altitude. If not, perhaps he is just an idiot!
     Next on my list was a councilman who is a local business man. He informed me that the mayor at times makes comments that are “out of character” for him. However, he refused to condemn the mayor judgments. Like the other one, he laughed and made a disparaging remark, and used the word “psychos” to describe people in crisis. It makes one wonder what other terms he uses to refer to people who are not part of his moral universe. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said,” Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity!”
     An effort to communicate with other members of this council proved fruitless. One man even said “I don’t care” and unceremoniously hung up on me. What is that old saying about cowards dying many deaths? Interestingly, several individuals who have been involved in the local chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, NAMI, live in Avon Lake. Additionally, for many years support groups have been meeting in that city with the same people that this former mayor and city council members have stigmatized.
     In retrospect, it is easy to understand why I received responses from the leaders in this community. It is widely accepted that mental illness is a hugely nondiscriminatory disease. It will strike the wealthy and the destitute alike. The biggest difference is readily available treatment, and that is not always available to people in lower incomes. As their comments stand as testimony, this group is lead more with arrogance, and ignorance, rather than being exposed to enlightenment and awareness. The leaders cannot understand that mental illness is just as prevalent in their community, as it is in less affluent communities such as the city of Lorain.
     I did find a couple of bright spots and one was Judge Darrel Bilancini. He took the time to sit down with me one on one, and discuss the seriousness of this issue. He had in-depth knowledge of this concern, and was always mindful of the challenges that students do face.  I was more impressed that he was courteous and never thought mental illness is a laughing matter. A far cry from the stupidity exhibited from the city and school officials.
     I never met former mayor Karl (KC) Zuber, but I did speak on the phone with him. Like Judge Bilancini, he was respectful and intelligent. Interestingly, he was always willing to meet with me on these issues, and did show a sound understanding of this subject.
     If the community wishes to honor the life of this young lady in a positive a meaningful fashion, I have two pieces of advice.
     First, stand up to the ignorance that is displayed by the ones that mock and belittle the seriousness of mental illness. Demand awareness and understanding, which will remove the stigma and open the door for people to feel free to seek treatment. Learn to accept those afflicted with understanding, compassion, and empathy. Condemn the bigots that permeate the discriminatory practices that exist as a huge roadblock to recovery.
     Finally, take the advice of former NFL coach turned football analyst, Tony Dungy, whose son committed suicide back in 2006. He said “Parents, hug your kids each chance you get. Tell them you love them each chance you get. You don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”