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Community works to "break barriers" on mental health stigma

Don Lee waves at passing cars on Main Street to raise awareness about mental health. "If it weren't for A Place to Belong, I would've been dead, plain and simple," Lee said. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS) 1 / 2
Chris Caulkins speaks at Perham High School on Thursday, May 9. Caulkins is a suicidologist who promotes ways to prevent suicide. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS) 2 / 2

Don Lee's struggle with mental health stems from problems in his childhood. He says those underlying issues were exacerbated by a disagreement with his wife five years ago.

"My kingdom crumbled," Lee said.

After that, he says he sat on the railroad tracks waiting for the Amtrak train to hit him, before New York Mills police spotted him and pulled him off.

"If it weren't for A Place to Belong I would've been dead, plain and simple," Lee said.

A Place to Belong provides a variety of free services including access to nutritious meals, laundry and internet services to people with serious mental illness.

Lee, along with a group from A Place to Belong, took to Main Street with posters promoting mental health awareness last Thursday ahead of the Breaking Barriers event at Perham High School. Sue Wilken, executive director of A Place to Belong, said stigma, isolation and loneliness are the three major roadblocks to recovery.

"This is working to eliminate stigma," she said holding a green sign that read "1 in 3 people with mental illness seek treatment."

Wilken said A Place to Belong is "just getting their feet off the ground in Perham," and is in the process of looking for a permanent home.

Breaking Barriers

Chris Caulkins, president of the Strub Caulkins Center for Suicide Research, and Director Brittany Miskowiec headlined the Breaking Barriers event at Perham High School. Before the presentation, area mental healthcare providers were on hand to answer questions and promote treatment options.

Caulkins started by telling the story of how he lost his wife, brother and 10 work collegues to suicide.

"Things like that can destroy you," he said.

Now Caulkins said his eyes are open to the world, and calls those deaths a gift in some way, because he's devoted his life to preventing more suicides.

Caulkins said the pain of losing a loved one to suicide never goes away.

"It goes from a horrible pain to a dull ache," he said. "If that pain goes away, you forget the person."

Miskowiec presented a condensed version of the suicideTALK program that aims to directly address the topic of suicide without the weight of stigma and fear.

Miskowiec opened by saying "There's nothing better to say than 'it sucks.'"

After getting that out of the way, she asked the audience "Why don't we talk about suicide?"

Answers ranged from fear, stigma, hurt, ignorance and guilt.

Miskowiec said every single person in the community has a role to play in getting past those negative connotations and creating an atmosphere where it's ok to talk about suicide openly, directly and respectfully.

"By doing that, we're shattering the stigma," she said. "We're saying, we're going to talk about it, we're going to take a stand, we're going to get through this together."

Starting with the letters T-A-L-K- Miskowiec ran down a framework for directly addressing and treating suicide.

"T" stands for tell. Miskowiec said for every person that's suicidal, part of them wants to die, but another part of them wants to live.

"They need people's help to keep them safe," she said.

Miskowiec said instead of thinking it's not your right to get nosy and ask about suicide, look for invitations. This could be a difference in someone's behavior at work, or that they're not taking care of themselves.

"It may be years that they've been having thoughts of suicide and never told anyone," she said. "Can you imagine how lonely it must be for that one person? So being that first person to listen is a big deal."

"A" stands for ask. Miskowiec said there's really no harm in asking someone directly if they've thought about suicide.

"L" stands for listen. If someone does confide their feelings with you, it's important to be genuine and honest, Miskowiec said.

"K" stands for keep safe. Miskowiec said someone who is suicidal needs to keep safe, but they don't know how.

"That's why they're showing these invitations," she said. "They don't know where to go for help."