When Carla Sawyer, a public health nurse, opened Wednesday night’s meeting at Three Rivers School, nobody in the audience of 35 could have been prepared for the shocking story she told, Carla’s abrupt career change, which has led to dedicating her life to suicide prevention and helping families affect by suicides, began on August 3, 2007, while she and her family were on a Hawaiian cruise.
By all appearances, her son, Bo, was a normal, well adjusted junior in high school. He played school sports, had lots of friends, and enjoyed teasing his little brother. It was that “little brother” that came to Carla and told her to come quick to the boys’ cabin.
Bo had hung himself. The grieving family returned from the cruise in shock, trying to make sense of what had happened.
“Nothing could prepare you for the grief you experience,” Carla said.
When she told her neighbors at home what had happened, they were shocked too. Bo’s best friend, Jared, called Carla, imploring her to tell him this was some kind of hoax.
Three weeks later, Jared ended his life in suicide. Carla decided then to make something good out of Bo’s death.
In 2008, she joined in the county’s efforts to provide suicide prevention outreach. Tulare County’s efforts were a direct result of Proposition 63 (also known as the Mental Health Services Act or MHSA), passed by California voters in 2004.
In 2009, the Tulare County Mental Health branch held meetings with community groups to determine local suicide prevention needs. These efforts led to the adoption of the “Tulare County Mental Health Services Act: Prevention and Early Intervention Plan.”
One of the primary elements of the new plan was suicide prevention. Later that same year the Tulare County Suicide Prevention Task Force began meeting to plan and launch awareness activities. In 2010, the SPTF sponsored the first Festival of Hope, aimed at suicide prevention.
There were more than 800 in attendance.
That first Festival of Hope was held outdoors at the Tulare Outlet Center to educate the public about the issue of suicide and how to get help. Festivals of Hope were held each of the next four years.
The year 2010 was pivotal in Carla’s career. On Christmas Eve, she began accompanying the coroner to the scenes of suicides. While the coroner investigates the circumstances, Carla offers emotional assistance to the family.
Carla has also been a part of several groups for survivors of suicides. In 2013, she helped start Tulare County’s first Loss Team, an active prevention model to complement services provided at the scene of suicides.
So what does it feel like to be a survivor of a suicide?
“I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to dream,” Carla answered.
The best therapy to start the healing process is to “just sit down, close your eyes, and breathe,” she said.
Carla offered these basic tenets to help survivors of suicide:
—Say your loved one’s name – it’s okay.
—Seek professional counseling; what you say in counseling is in strict confidence.
—Get connected to other survivors.
—Plan ahead for that first Christmas and birthday without your loved one. Start new traditions.
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Sgt. Alan Knight, Tulare County coroner, spoke next. He said the coroner is responsible for investigating all deaths, meaning how a person died and why. Every deputy of the Sheriff’s Department is a deputy coroner.
When a deputy arrives on the scene of a fatality, the scene is secured and the coroner is summoned.
“Every death is either a homicide, accidental death, from natural causes, or a suicide,” Sgt. Knight said. “If I get a call for a reported suicide, I call Carla and we go,” Sgt. Knight said. “I do my job. But I can’t look someone in the eye and say I know what you are going through. I can’t. But Carla can.”
For every homicide, there are two suicides, he said.
“We have to get rid of the stigma of talking about it,” Sgt. Knight said. “The heroes are the people like Carla and the other families that fight through it. If you have a friend or family member that has experienced suicide, let them know it’s okay to talk about it.”
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Noah Whitaker, SPTF director, followed the coroner, and his presentation focused on the public health issue of suicide and what everyone can do to help. He said there were 46 suicides last year in Tulare County; there have been 17 so far in 2017.
Whitaker said the rate of suicide is less in Tulare County than the national or the statewide averages. He can’t be certain why the lower numbers for Tulare County but attributes the numbers in part to the joint efforts of the Tulare and Kings Counties SPTF.
“Help starts with the individual,” Noah said. “Suicide is not like cancer. You don’t often hear someone say I am a suicide survivor.”
Noah related that his grandfather died from suicide before he was born.
“When I was a senior in high school, my dad died due to suicide,” Noah said. “The school administration’s policy was don’t talk about it. That’s the worst-case scenario.”
Noah explained that “postvention” provides help for the survivors. A postvention is an intervention conducted after a suicide, mostly in the form of support for the family, friends, professionals, and/or peers because family and friends of a suicide victim may be at increased risk of suicide themselves.
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Tulare County’s Health and Human Services Agency has a special training program called ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), which helps people feel more comfortable, confident, and competent in helping prevent the immediate risk of suicide of someone they know.
“Mental Health First Aid,” a part of the two-day training, teaches participants about some of the most common mental illnesses and how best to get help to people who may be struggling with a mental illness.
The training programs are usually offered in Visalia, Noah said. But if the Three Rivers community can get 15 sign-ups, the program will be held at a local venue.
Anyone interested in the ASIST program should call Noah Whitaker at (559) 731-1348.
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Suicide information is available online at Suicide.org. Suicide.org is the largest suicide prevention, awareness, and support website and is available around the clock.
For those who need immediate assistance: Dial 911, call 1-800-SUICIDE, or text 1-800-799-4889.