Susan Payne knows what it feels like to be isolated and withdrawn due to suicide.
On Tuesday afternoon, toward the end of the Community Suicide Prevention Conference, the Hume resident stood up and spoke publically for the first time about her father’s suicide.
Edward West, a Culpeper native, took his own life Oct. 6, 2016 after suffering a stroke a year before.
“In the beginning it was very difficult,” Payne said. “I have a very large, extended family. It’s one of the things, silently we’ve brushed under the rug. He was older. So when everyone says ‘I’m sorry about what happened with your dad,’ no one really asks what happened. Everyone knew me or knew my family knew he had those issues and was going down a tough road of recovery. So I didn’t talk about it a lot.”
She opened up about it through an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Program, located in Woodbridge. Soon after, she moved her grief counseling to Spiritual Care Support Ministries in Warrenton. There, she opened up more after working with Alan Rasmussen, prevention specialist for Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services, and began writing columns - anonymously at first - for SCSM. Now, she helps coordinate Those Left Behind by Suicide beginning Sept. 19 from 7 – 8:30 p.m., at 76 West Shirley Ave. Visit www.scsm.tv for more about the class.
After taking gatekeeper training at Culpeper United Methodist Church and more internal reflection, she decided to open up and share her experience.
“It’s healed me a lot,” Payne said.
She acknowledges there’s a stigma about suicide that still haunts the survivors, but she encourages opening up and sharing - because it’s how lives are saved and how souls are healed.
“For my own mental health, it’s important for me to remember the way he lived and not the way he died,” she said. “Yes it is difficult to talk about it, but knowing that I’m not alone and that others have gone through the same situation - and we can bond together as a family. I think the more we talk about it and educate - it helps.”
That was the overall message at the conference Tuesday - communication and responding to signs. The conference, sponsored by Germanna Community College’s Counseling Services, RRCS and Healthy Culpeper, featured a screening of the film “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” followed by a panel discussion and community interaction where residents shared their concerns and issues with those at the front lines of the suicide epidemic.
Rasmussen, who has 16 years of experience dealing with suicide prevention in Culpeper County, talked about the different coalitions and partnerships that goes into battling the epidemic.
“We have to let them (those suffering with thoughts of suicide) that there’s hope,” he said.
That hope was on the panel in the form of Sallie Morgan, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Fauquier County - which also does work in Rappahannock. She spoke of the work the association has done in schools in Fauquier County and how a study showed that 17 percent of high school students had thoughts of suicide.
“No one owns the problem or the solution,” she said. “ We need an entire community that is caring and informed - that’s not afraid to talk about suicide and substance abuse.”
Ed Long and his wife Gloria, who formed the Living the Dream Foundation in 2016, know all too well the realities of dealing with the aftermath of suicide and substance abuse.
Their son Ben committed suicide in 2015 - after moving home and admitting he had an addiction to heroin. Now, they fight to raise awareness and train others to try to prevent other families suffering the way theirs did.
“Don’t be like me, don’t wait for suicide to happen to get involved,” Long said, fighting back tears.
Dr. Russell Houck, Executive Director of Student Services for Culpeper County Public Schools, detailed how the schools have addressed the suicide epidemic. A study was done in 2017 that showed 16 percent of students in 7th through 12th grade had considered suicide. For Houck, who as an assistant principal in 1995 had to deal with a fifth grader who took his own life, the study was a wakeup call. Now, CCPS has instituted social and emotional learning to help students cope with the stress and anxiety they face during the school year. He said Culpeper is a trauma informed school district, one that tries to teach kids to build resilience to the negativity they face on a daily basis.
Katey Denner, counselor with Germanna Community College said that the conference’s goal was to provide resources and bring community members together to work on awareness.
“I think everyone has been impacted by suicide, especially our students, and we’re working to create a healthier community so that we can have healthier students and people who can contribute.”
This week is National Suicide Prevention week and Tuesday was International Suicide Prevention Day. It was the day that Payne showed her bravery and spoke out about living as a survivor of suicide.
“It’s empowering,” Payne said. “I’m here to make a difference and I’m here to make a change. I want to be the person that notices the symptoms. I just wish I could have made a difference for him (my dad) - now I get to make the change and make a difference.”