November 26, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
ADDISON COUNTY — After Kathy Jones’ father killed himself, her mother went to great lengths to have his death certificate changed. Instead of reading “suicide” as the cause of death, it now reads “unknown.”
There’s no doubt about how her father died, Jones said. Her mother drove home early from work that day to find him asphyxiating in a running car, closed up in the garage.
But people don’t know how to talk about suicide, Jones said. So for many survivors, it’s easier to make up a lie.
“You learn, when you’ve dealt with a death like this, people act so bizarre,” Jones said. “I’ve had people just shut right down when I tell them how my father died.”
It’s been eight years since the East Middlebury resident lost her father, but this year Jones joined the Survivors of Suicide (SOS) support group in Burlington. Before long, she became a board member for the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
Last month, Jones joined nearly 100 Vermonters in the fourth annual AFSP “Out of the Darkness Community Walk” in Burlington, helping to raise more than $17,000 toward national and local suicide prevention and awareness programs. She hopes to bring the topic of suicide out of the shadows.
According to the Vermont Agency of Human Services, in 2004 Vermont had the 12th highest suicide rate in the country; there were 93 suicides in the state that year. Addison County has seen a number of suicides in the last couple years and certainly has a reason to be concerned, said AHS field director Sue Schmidt in Middlebury.
“Part of the reason we should be concerned is suicide is preventable,” Schmidt said. “There is definitely a myth that if you talk about suicide, people will attempt suicide … Talking about suicide does not increase people’s risk. What does increase people’s risk is if we don’t know where to send them.”
David Clark, a bereavement specialist for Hospice Volunteer Services, has been working with Schmidt and the Counseling Services of Addison County to offer support to area residents affected by suicide. He has seen the community remain hesitant to talk about suicide even as incidences rise in recent years.
“I don’t think the counseling service, or us, or the state, for that matter, really know what to do to turn the tide,” he said. “Because really what we’re dealing with is a big cultural problem, which is a fact that doesn’t seem to go down with a huge amount of money or attention or education thrown at it.”
Any effective prevention programs need to begin before the community loses someone to suicide.
“Suicide prevention needs to be looked at as a developmental curriculum,” Schmidt said. “We need to start at a very early age in the schools. Really good prevention means that we are having a conversation about healthy living, mental health … not just after someone kills themselves.”
A TRAGIC TAIL
Jones’ father, Gene Healey, was 55 when he took his own life. A successful banker and business-owner in the Boston area, he had struggled with depression all his life; this was no secret to his family.
He regularly took lithium, which tempered the waves of depression, but would go off it about once a year when he felt he was doing better. That’s when he would start to deteriorate again.
In his early 30s, after losing a restaurant he owned, he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself. He drove into the garage and closed himself in. But this time it was in the middle of the night, so Jones’ mother knew he was missing, came down to the garage and stopped him. Jones was about 7 years old at the time.
“He went away to get treatment for a couple years after that,” Jones said. “I remember visiting there. I felt comfortable and OK, but I knew something definitely was not right. I wasn’t completely aware of what he had done.”
Fast forward to 1999 when Healey was trying to retire.
“He didn’t know what he wanted to do, he wasn’t finding his way,” Jones said. “There was a lot of confusion about what went wrong.”
No one could have guessed that he would have chosen the time he did. He had new grandchildren, whom he adored, and Jones, who was 29, was three weeks away from her college graduation.
On the day in April when he died, Jones tried to call him between classes, but the room was too noisy, so she put the phone down.
“I knew my dad was down,” she said. “But I wasn’t at all concerned that he was going to take his own life.”
When she finished her day at school, she came straight home to her parents’ house. Inside was a note from her mother, telling her to come to the hospital.
“I knew instantly,” she said. “‘He finally did it.’ That’s what I said to myself.”
It took Jones years and the sturdy support system of her husband, Jeff, and the rest of her family to start to see herself as a survivor, rather than a victim. When she was ready, attending the SOS support groups further solidified that feeling.
“I have taken that anxiety that was very real and scary and uncomfortable and I’ve turned it into a voice,” she said. “I still feel like I’m carrying a huge secret, a lot of people do. It’s hard to explain, walking into the group, you just instantly know you’re with comfortable, nonjudgmental people. It lowers anxiety to be able to talk to people who have been through the same thing.”
Jones will attend a leadership training conference for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention this January; she wants to strengthen the support systems here in Addison County for people who have been affected by suicide. But her primary goal is to de-stigmatize the issue.
“People feel bad for you,” she said. “It makes me feel like a little shrivel of a person. But it’s OK. Did I have other plans? Yeah, but so does everybody. I don’t think it’s any worse than having a parent die of cancer, or anything else.”
Jones doesn’t have children of her own, but if she did, she said, she would never lie to them about her father’s suicide. It’s never too early to start being honest.
“It actually goes back to what my dad taught me,” she said, with a smile. “If you’re in trouble, you don’t lie about it, because then you’re in double trouble.”
More information is available at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.outofthedarkness.org.