The annual Suicide Prevention Summit in La Crosse takes on added urgency with the near-record number of people losing their lives to it in La Crosse County this year, according to Judy Shoults.
“No one is immune, as with depression,” said the Onalaska woman who is a member of the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative and has chronicled her own battle with depression.
The initiative’s Sept. 10 summit at the La Crosse Center aims to drive that point home, as well as detail means to help prevent suicide. An awareness event from 6 to 7:30 p.m. the day before at Riverside Park will memorialize those who have lost their lives.
Seventeen have succumbed in La Crosse County so far this year, just one short of the record of 18 all last year.
“If we continue the trend, we’ll go over the 18,” Shoults said.
The death of 63-year-old comedian/actor Robin Williams death at his own hand Monday has focused a spotlight on the problem, she said.
“He was one of my favorites,” she said. “I was just reading about men taking their own lives, and many times it is related to depression, or addiction or medical problems — so there was a triple threat there for him.”
Williams, who overcame severe addictions for two decades before relapsing in 2006, was depressed over his career and had early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, according to family members.
“He probably didn’t want to become what he thought — wrongly — would be a burden for his family,” Shoults said. “What a tortured soul.”
Instead of yielding to the torment, “people need to let go of the idea that depression is a stigma and reach for help,” she said.
It is hard to explain the increase in suicides because “it’s always hard to know why because there are so many different forms of depression,” she said. “We know about veterans, but whether it’s an increase, we don’t know” because it wasn’t always recognized in the past.
“Many times, the person who commits suicide has not reached out for help, whether it is with addiction, depression, PTSD or sexual assault. Our mission is to get people talking and aware so they seek help,” she said.
“The reason I know is because of my own battle with depression. I’ve been in that dark place myself where you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“At that moment, people give up and don’t reach for the phone,” she said. “Looking back, I realize I let somebody else see the light. It was my doctor. He never gave up on me and said, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’ve got something else to try.’ He was seeing that light for me.”
Among those shedding light on the issue during the summit will be Dr. Timothy Lineberry, chief medical officer for Aurora Health Care in Green Bay.
“Suicide is a complex, multi-factorial problem,” said Lineberry, who until recently was medical director of the Mayo Clinic Psychiatric Hospital in Rochester, Minn., and an associate psychiatry professor at Mayo's College of Medicine.
A researcher of the topic since he was in the U.S. Air Force from 1991 to 2003, Lineberry said in an interview, “What things can we do that make a difference? One of the issues clinically is delivering evidence-based treatments.
“There are things we know about people who are depressed and have access to firearms,” he said.
Limiting patients’ access to even drugs such as Tylenol and adapting rooms in mental health facilities to remove the potential for suicides also are important, he said.
“We also have to get people in the moment to (use) call centers and promote awareness,” Lineberry said.
“From a larger standpoint,” he said, “it has incredible meaning to all of us. Everybody is put at risk.”
Shoults said she wasn’t even aware of the 211 crisis line when she considered suicide herself in the midst of deepening depression about 15 years ago.
“I had thoughts of it, but I never attempted,” she said. “I thought I’d take a lot of my pills, but then I thought I’d just get sick.
“There is nothing rational when you’re in that dark place. I was afraid I’d just get sick and vomit — and for what?” she said with a soft laugh, saying, “I still have to put humor into this because that’s who I am.”
During a meltdown in January 2002, she entered the behavioral health unit in what is now Gundersen Health System.
Hospitalized there three times for a total of 16 days between January and March, she said, “I had excellent medical support, excellent family support, and I was never embarrassed about my disease. I just never got the memo that I should be embarrassed.”
Shoults stresses the value of calling the 211 emergency help line, describing it is amazing. It’s anonymous. Sometimes, you just need to talk.
“One day I was in a dark place and a friend called and said, ‘I’m thinking of you,’” she recalled, noting that it helped pull her out of her funk.
One of the main requirements to fight suicide, and a goal of the summit, “is to get rid of the stigma,” Shoults said. “My mother used to be a nurse, and cancer had such a stigma that people used to whisper the word, like, ‘She has cancer.’”
Acknowledging depression and adopting a positive approach are keys to overcoming it, she said.
“I choose to use the term that I ‘live with depression,’ not ‘suffer from depression.’ In reality, I do have days I suffer — according to the definition in the dictionary — but it is mentally healthier to use the word ‘live.’”