February 27, 2009

Speakers: Education is key for families dealing with suicide

By Mary Ann Wyand

Second of two parts


It’s painful to even read that word—let alone to cope with the reality of suddenly and unexpectedly losing a loved one because of a deliberate, self-inflicted injury.

Shock, disbelief, confusion, sorrow, guilt and remorse are common reactions for the relatives and friends of people who die by suicide.

St. Nicholas parishioners Tom and Fran Smith of O’Fallon, Ill., who founded the Karla Smith Foundation with their son, Kevin, understand those devastating feelings because they have experienced a wide range of conflicting emotions as heartbroken parents.

In 2003, their daughter, Karla, who was Kevin’s twin sister, died by suicide at age 26 as a result of her bipolar disorder. (Related: Recognizing possible warning signs can help to prevent suicides)

The Karla Smith Foundation is dedicated to providing “hope for a balanced life” for people and families who are struggling to cope with mental illness.

The Smiths have devoted their retirement years to educating people about the facts, symptoms, myths, statistics, warning signs, spirituality and stigmas associated with mental illness and suicide.

During an educational program on Feb. 3 at SS. Francis and Clare Parish in Greenwood, the Smiths discussed “Breaking the Silence of Mental Illness in Parishes and Religious Congregations.” (Related: Speakers offer hope for those struggling with mental illness)

They also were the keynote speakers for the seventh annual archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries and Catholic Cemeteries Association Mission Day on Feb. 4 at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. Their topic was “Suicide Grief: A Day for Persons Caring for Family Members and Loved Ones Challenged by Mental Illness and the Experience of Suicide.”

Tom Smith is the author of A Balanced Life: Nine Strategies for Coping with the Mental Health Problems of a Loved One and The Tattered Tapestry: A Family’s Search for Peace with Bipolar Disorder.

Mental illness and suicide cause the relatives and friends of the loved one to experience “disenfranchised grief,” they said during the Feb. 3 program in Greenwood.

After several years of episodes of manic behavior and depression, Tom Smith said, “unbeknownst to us, Karla took herself off one of her medications … and as a result of that she wound up in a very major manic episode again in the summer and fall of 2002.”

During the holidays that year, Karla became very depressed, he said, decided that she didn’t want to live any longer and listened to the “voices” in her head that encouraged her to kill herself.

They intervened again and Karla completed another treatment program at a behavioral health care center in Tulsa, Okla., in 2003. But soon after she was discharged from the center, Karla wrote a suicide note and took her life with a gun.

“We grieved for her and still are,” Fran Smith said. “There are staggering statistics regarding death by suicide—more than 32,000 suicides a year in the United States. Do you realize that there is a suicide in our country every 16 minutes? Ninety percent of the people who die by suicide have some type of mental disorder. … Often times, when a person is released from treatment—and that was the case with our daughter—it’s hard to believe that the suicide rate increases by 250 percent.

“Imagine the guilt and the pain that parents go through,” she said. “Think of a spouse when their husband or wife takes their own life. That’s why we work with families to help them through some of those feelings of failure and guilt that accompany suicide.”

More women attempt suicide, she said, but more men die by suicide.

She said the National Association of Mental Illness and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance are wonderful support organizations for people whose loved ones struggle with mental illness.

“It’s important not to define the person by their illness,” Fran Smith said. “We have to watch our language when discussing mental illness and suicide. … People don’t commit suicide. They die by suicide.

“Our pastor was wonderful at Karla’s funeral,” she recalled. “A death by suicide is tremendously sad. At the cemetery, he said, ‘Folks, remember that we are here because we love Karla, who was far more than her illness.’ That’s important to remember, but I think, for a long time, when someone you love dies by suicide you just think of the horror of that death and kind of forget about the rest of that person’s life.”

Survivors don’t grieve about the past, she said. “We grieve about the future, about what will not be. I think that’s the thing we have to remember with someone who has a mental illness. Yes, there are some things that maybe won’t happen [in his or her life], but there are many things that have happened, many good things that give us hope. That’s what we have to remember.” †

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