Bringing Light to Darkness

Bringing Light to Darkness

Local groups are working hard to stop death by suicide and provide support to those left in its wake.

Sometimes called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” suicide always causes more problems than it solves: unfulfilled potential, grieving relatives and friends, and the nagging question of why? And around the holidays, the hole left in suicide’s wake can feel especially massive.

It seems that few of us are untouched by that act—whether because of a relative or friend, or a seemingly on-top-of-the-world celebrity such as Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade.

“Mental health issues can strike anyone,” says Peter Langman, PhD, a private-practice psychologist in Allentown and president of the Greater Lehigh Valley chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“And some people are good at keeping their stresses hidden from those around them. I don’t think Kate Spade, Robin Williams, or Anthony Bourdain were visibly gloomy and depressed.”

Suicide can strike across all social and financial levels. And a common factor is not depression itself, but an overwhelming hopelessness, a sense that things will never get better. “Many times, people contemplating suicide believe they are burdens to those around them, that the world would be better off without them. And that can be a powerful belief,” he says.

Langman also notes some general patterns: Men are more prone to die from suicide than women, suicide rates are higher among whites than non-whites, and it’s more frequent during middle age than other age groups. 

The group SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) says “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids are three times more likely than straight kids to attempt suicide at some point in their lives;” and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says about 20 vets die from suicide each day.

But the situation isn’t entirely glum. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is a national organization dedicated to raising awareness, funding scientific research, and providing resources and aid to those affected by suicide.

Jim Presto, chairman of AFSP’s Greater Lehigh Valley chapter, knows the heartbreak firsthand. In 2014, he and his wife Laurette lost their 19-year-old son to suicide. “Josh had depression,” Presto says, “and he wasn’t forthcoming about it.” The athletic teen had also struggled to overcome several debilitating injuries.

Jim and his wife joined the local AFSP and set about implementing its three pillars of prevention: research, education/advocacy, and outreach.

“Just knowing that someone cares can make all the difference.”

“The national group raises about $20 million per year,” he says. “Last year, nearly $13 million was invested in prevention research. Based on those findings, the AFSP creates programs aimed at educating the community about the warning signs of potential suicide and the ramifications of that act. We also advocate state and federal legislators to budget more money for mental health and other prevention programs. And our outreach activities bring hope to the survivors.”

AFSP’s efforts have borne legislative fruit. In 2014, then-Governor Tom Corbett signed Act 71 into law—it requires public educators in grades 6-12 statewide to acquire four hours of training in youth suicide and prevention every five years.

On the local level, one of the organization’s highest-profile events is the annual “Out of the Darkness” walk, which raises funds for the chapter and builds awareness. It’s so named to reflect the need to replace the stigma and shame with compassion for the deceased and their survivors.

The chapter also sponsors two support groups for survivors. One is led by Mary Youtz, whose son, Joe Gagnier, died by his own hand in 2004, just weeks before his 28th birthday.

“We strive to make meetings a healing experience, where we talk openly among people who are on the same journey,” she says. Youtz added that the meeting’s basic purpose is that of sharing—not to provide advice or solve problems. Each group is led by two co-facilitators—a trained mental health professional and a survivor.

Youtz helped set up the local AFSP chapter and has served on its board since then. “My involvement has helped me tremendously,” she says. “It helped me realize that there are so many other people out there who have lost loved ones to suicide.”

You can take an active part in suicide prevention by paying attention and then acting appropriately. 

“If you’re concerned about someone, ask about how they are doing, and whether they’re having suicidal thoughts. If they are not already suicidal, your question is not going to plant the idea in their head—that’s a myth. But if they are, your questions will show a sense of interest in their problems, and that can lead to a conversation about getting professional help,” Dr. Langman says. “Just knowing that someone cares can make all the difference.”

But do not take the DIY approach, he cautions. If a person is at risk, they should seek a qualified mental health professional, such as a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, even a family doctor (who could offer a referral). “And remember—you are not the therapist, so don’t try to provide counseling. Stay supportive and friendly as that person enters therapy,” he says.


Get more information about suicide awareness, prevention, and support groups from the following organizations:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

This Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1.800.273.8255.

Aevidum 

This non-profit organization, originating in Lancaster County, empowers youth to shatter the silence surrounding depression, suicide, and other issues facing teens. For more information, visit Aevidum.com/cms

AFSP – Greater Lehigh Valley

This organization is dedicated to raising awareness, funding scientific research, and providing resources and aid to those affected by suicide. For more information, visit: afsp.org/chapter/afsp-greater-lehigh-valley-pennsylvania

Survivors of Suicide Loss 

These support groups welcome friends and family who have lost a loved one to suicide. 

2545 Schoenersville Rd, Bethlehem
Meets the first Tuesday of each month, 7-8 pm  |  [email protected]

3231 W. Tilghman St, Allentown
Meets the third Thursday of each month, 7-8:30 pm  |  [email protected]

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