College of Charleston graduate Emily Torchiana used to avoid talking about her depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. “I really did think, ‘I’m the only one struggling with this. I’m different. I’m weird for feeling this way.’”
But she’s learned that talking about it helps. “I found out there’s a whole group of people who feel this way, and they’re the normal people in your life who are at your workplace, your school, your family and friends. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy.”
On October 14, people from across the Lowcountry will gather at Hampton Park to talk about mental health, support people who have lost loved ones to suicide and raise money for suicide prevention efforts at the Out of the Darkness Charleston Area Walk. Registration and check-in begin at 1 p.m. that day. You can also register in advance online through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The event is free.
Walk organizer Regina Creech, injury prevention coordinator at MUSC Health, says registration is up at least 15 percent over last year. “I think it’s possibly because of the celebrity losses of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Following their deaths, the Anderson Cooper special ‘Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis’ aired on TV and several celebrities shared publicly that they or their family members had struggled. Our local community was affected by loss, too, of students and others.”
Fundraising for the Charleston event is up, too. Creech says so far, the walk has pulled in more than $33,000. That’s a 125 percent increase over last year. The goal is $40,000.
The need for suicide prevention education and programs is clear. In South Carolina, the suicide rate increased by 38 percent between 1999 and 2016, the largest rise in the Southeast. Creech says there’s no single factor that explains the uptick.
“We know that there can be many contributing factors like relationship issues, financial strains and drug and alcohol abuse. It is life stressors combined with mental health conditions that can lead to a mental health crisis and suicidal thoughts. Mental health is a part of total health, and like other chronic health conditions, people should be aware of possible signs and also practice self-care and management.”
Meg Wallace, a social worker in the MUSC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences who lost a friend to suicide, works with trauma survivors. She’s also working with Creech to coordinate the suicide prevention walk. “Suicide is often something that people don’t talk about. There’s a sense of shame to it.”
There shouldn’t be, she says. “Part of the reason we do the walk is because there are services available to those who need help. We just need to be able to identify them and connect them. Even once identified, there are so many barriers, both intrinsic and extrinsic, that prevent people from reaching those services. And you add in other factors like poverty, trauma and under-represented minority populations, the barriers only increase.”
Torchiana says her mental health issues started after she was cyberbullied in high school. She went public with her struggles in college, started a nonprofit organization to educate people about mental illness and gave a TEDxCharleston talk.
Now living in her hometown of Philadelphia, she continues to run her nonprofit and separately works in marketing. She also offers advice to people dealing with mental illness and people worried about friends or loved ones.
If you’re the one who is struggling, reach out, Torchiana says. “I wouldn’t expect my life to be the way it is today if I hadn’t done that. Reaching out for help is the best thing you can do for yourself. I’m dealing with it in a much more positive way because I realize it’s not wrong to be struggling with it and by talking about it I can actually feel better.
“It sounds so corny and cliched to say it gets better, but it really does. I’ll always have depression and PTSD and anxiety. Those are the three mental illnesses I have. But by coping with them in a better way, it makes my life so much easier and better. Not every day is perfect but it’s not for anybody. I’m definitely 100 percent better than when I was dealing with it on my own.”
And if you’re worried about someone else, speak up. “A lot of people think if they ask someone if they’re struggling with suicidal thoughts or use the word suicide in general, it could trigger something for that person. But studies have shown that if you directly ask someone if they’re struggling and thinking about suicide, it will lead them to not attempt suicide and talk about it. If you think someone you love is struggling with it, asking them about it is so important instead of beating around the bush.
Listen and watch for changes in behavior. “If you hear them saying, ‘I feel like a burden to other people. It would be better if I weren’t here.’ Or if they’re acting more recklessly or getting more into alcohol or drugs, say ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been saying or doing X, Y and Z, I’ve been worried about you. Are you thinking about suicide? If so, I’m here to listen,’” Torchiana says.
“You don’t have to act like you understand how they feel, but listening to them is so important. Just having someone who’s there and supportive and not judgmental means the world to someone who’s struggling.”
MUSC Health has an Institute of Psychiatry with inpatient and outpatient treatment. The number is 843-792-9888. You can also find more information about risk factors and resources on the MUSC Counseling and Psychological Services page.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.