Brian Sullivan: Talking about suicide still carries stigma
Editors note: I worked with Mike Gokey for two years while on staff at Taconic High School. Robin Williams made me laugh, Mike Gokey made me smile. Both will be missed.
It's Robin Williams or it's Mike Gokey. Amen, brother. That's all I can say.
I would ask you all to bellow out another "Amen," but I don't know if it would help. Still, it would be a significant change, because suicide is a discussion that usually takes place in the politically correct world of whispers and hushed tones. Maybe, just maybe, that's part of the problem. Maybe it needs to be met head-on with all parties in the equation ready to stand tall and swing back with fury. Maybe we should get angry instead of miffed.
The foster family and friends of Gokey met last week in the parking lot of Matt Reilly's Pub on Route 7, and floated Chinese lanterns into the night sky. They were honoring and remembering Mike on the one-year anniversary of the day he took his life in the woods off Valentine Road near the family home.
Mike, 21, was a former Taconic High School student and had lived with the Bishop family for seven years.
"Mike kept a personal journal that no one was able to read until his death," said Rosie Bishop, who with her husband. Terry Sr., and sons Terry Jr., and Tom, made up Mike's immediate foster family. "It was obvious reading it that Mike worshipped his real parents and never did quite get over being put into the foster care system at a young age.
One part, Rosie said, was particularly poignant. "He asked how his father could have served in the U.S. military and defended our country but couldn't find the time to spend with him."
Many of us have been down Suicide Road. We know someone, who knows someone, etc. No one is here to judge.
Rosie said that Mike was a hard read. It's true he was being treated for depression, but no one ever told the Bishop family that he might be a "suicide risk." In fact, much of the time he was the life of the party.
He cast light where there was darkness, and while there were the expected rough patches, the Bishop family believed for a long time they had the young man on the right track. They remain devastated, and for the moment, are out of the foster care game. It may stay that way.
Renee Marshall is a nurse instructor for the Red Cross and a close family friend of the Bishops. She lives across the street from the family, and when no one else was sure about being up to the task, taught Mike how to drive. She was the "aunt" figure in his life.
"There's agony after the fact, and you wonder how you could have missed the signs," Marshall said. "But Mike made it clear in his journal that he wanted us to grieve -- he knew that would happen -- but he didn't want it to be forever."
Marshall said that Mike hid mementos around her house, all of which, she maintains, was his way of saying good-bye.
"A sports cap here, an orange shirt there [his favorite color] and he put his motorcycle goggles on a shelf right behind mine."
And the signs? "Talking about God, the afterlife, heaven and hell," Marshall said. "It's those kind of things, especially with younger adults."
Both Bishop and Marshall said the road that begins with low self-esteem and moves to depression and then finally the ultimate act is one perilous journey.
Depression is a word, they said, that gets thrown around quite a bit. But suicide? Not so much.
"That carries a stigma," Bishop said. "But it shouldn't. People who feel suicidal need to speak up. We need to fill in that gap and give those people a place to go where they truly feel they are getting help."
The answer, Marshall said, can come from both the medical and religious circles. Faith, she said, shouldn't be discounted.
Amen to that.
The National Foundation of Suicide Prevention's figures for 2013 show 37 suicides in Berkshire County. The county stands to better that number in 2014.
The figures do not reflect death by either drug overdose or any event related to an automobile. Only a section of Cape Cod had more deaths, according to the society.
The annual Walk for Suicide Prevention will take place on Sept. 21, in Springfield. Last year's event drew thousands, including "Mike's Angels," a local group that participated in honor of Mike Gokey.
That group will hold a fundraiser on Sept. 14, at Fairways at the GEAA, with pasta dinners being served between noon and 4 at $10 per plate. All proceeds will go toward the walk. For information, call the Fairway at (413) 442-3585.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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