Original article no longer available
00:00 am 7/16/05
Amy Elizabeth Osgood Wisconsin State Journal
Dennis Gates’ son Justin committed suicide 13 years ago, spurring Gates to become an activist for suicide awareness. (Steve Apps – State Journal)
For most, suicide is an uncomfortable topic, something they would rather not think or talk about. Unfortunately, silence only makes things worse, both for those personally affected and for solving the problem at large, according to Dennis Gates, whose son committed suicide 13 years ago, nine days before his 18th birthday.
“People who have lost children want to say and to hear the name of their dead child,” he said. “Other people cannot make them sad by ‘reminding’ them of their loss. They are already sad, and they cannot forget.”
Gates, 56, will honor his son by participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight, a 20- mile walk that will take place in Chicago this weekend.
Walking throughout the night tonight and into the morning Sunday will symbolize bringing the issues of suicide and depression “out of the darkness,” according to Robert Gebbia, the director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). [An organization that appears to be “legitimate” but is a front for the pharma agenda, the huge and increasing role of medication in suicide is never mentioned by this group – SSRI Ed]
“The idea came about because so many people … suffer in silence,” Gebbia said. “We think it’s time to give this issue more public attention and awareness so something can be done about it.”
Each walker has to raise a minimum of $1,000 to participate. Proceeds will go to the AFSP, an organization that funds suicide prevention research, education and awareness programs.
Gates, an information systems consultant from Madison, can rattle off some surprising statistics. Between 40 and 50 suicides occur in Dane County every year, about one a week. Nationally, the number of suicide deaths is about the same as those from prostate cancer and about 20 percent more than homicide deaths, he said.
“We all know how important it is to us to deal with homicides, but that level of urgency is not there when it comes to suicide,” Gates said. He quoted Kay Redfield Jameson’s book “Night Falls Fast”: “Still the effort seems unhurried. Every 17 minutes in America someone commits suicide. Where is the public concern and outrage?”
Gates hopes statistics, but more importantly, personal stories, will cause people to take notice of suicide as a public health problem that deserves attention.
“The more we can personify it, then the less people are able to ignore it,” he said.
Dealing with loss
Gates’ son, Justin, had attempted suicide six months before he died. He was seeing a counselor and taking anti-depressants.
“A lot of people say they had no clue (after a loved one commits suicide),” Gates said. “I knew.”
What he didn’t know was that Justin had stopped going to his counselor.
“With him hiding it from us, there was no way to help,” Gates said.
Justin was an avid science- fiction reader and a National Merit Scholar semi-finalist, according to his father.
“It’s a personal and painful loss for me, but it’s also a loss … for the people who knew him, for the people who went to school with him, and it’s a loss for the people who would have been in his life if he had survived,” Gates said.
After years of mourning, Gates decided to get active.
“2000 was a breakthrough year for me,” he said. “As a dad whose presumptive reality was crushed when my only son – only child – died, I was searching more for purpose than for meaning. The answer is that I can share my legacy by being of service to those who come after me.”
Gates went through formal training and became a volunteer facilitator for the Survivors of Suicide (SOS) adult support group at the Mental Health Center of Dane County.
“He was involved as a participant first, and after that he became interested in giving back,” said Vicki Westrich, the center’s primary contact for survivor services. “It’s a gift that he gives.”
Through SOS, he found out about Helping Others Prevent and Educate about Suicide (HOPES). When he went to the group’s Web site, he noticed its information was outdated, so he asked the president if she had lost her Webmaster.
“The next thing I knew, I was the Webmaster and a member of the board,” he said.
The group put together a survivor handbook and distributed it to funeral directors in Wisconsin. They also worked with Congress and the Surgeon General to pronounce suicide as a national public health problem. Then the surgeon general issued a national strategy for suicide prevention.
HOPES also promotes gatekeeper training, a suicide prevention technique that teaches community members how to help people who show warning signs of suicide.
“You always advocate that physicians should screen people for this, that and the other thing, but that only works if they go to the physician,” Gates said. Training people like school teachers and staff members, hair dressers and postal workers increases the likelihood that a suicidal person will be noticed and get help.
HOPES also works to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental illnesses.
“For every person out there who feels depressed, there’s at least one person who’s going to tell them that they can just think their way out of it, that they can get better by willpower . . . imply to them that if they can’t get better by willpower, then they’re weak- willed or somehow a bad person,” Gates said. “So when people are convinced that they’re weak or evil then they tend not to go to the doctor to get help.”
Walkers in this weekend’s Overnight will show their support for those battling depression.
“I expect to feel empowered,” Gates said. “I expect to feel some sadness. I expect to feel good will from and toward the people I’m with.”