DAVIDSON The first step toward solving a problem, it is often said, is seeing that you have one. Last fall, a two-word question helped bring that clarity to an entire town.
“This seems like a lot of suicides,” Davidson Mayor John Woods said. “Is it?”
Around the same time, Lynn Hennighausen and her friend, Jaletta Desmond, invited six other women to join them downtown at Summit Coffee. Again, the topic was what the pair believed to be an alarming number of suicides.
Desmond’s own daughter had taken her life earlier in the year. When the group gathered, five Davidson residents had killed themselves in 2012.
“There were pockets of people meeting and talking, almost on the same day,” Hennighausen says.
Separately, they reached the same conclusion: “This can’t stand anymore. We cannot do nothing.”
What followed can be described as spontaneous civic combustion, known in some circles as “The Davidson Way.”
Bursting the bubble
Residents here take pride that they often see things differently. They rally. They organize. They throw themselves at issues, whether it’s more green space, smarter growth or tighter zoning.
But this was different. Now the town of 11,000, along with its college, its schools, its students, its churches and its government, pledged to confront suicide, traditionally among the most private and stigmatized of acts.
For the past seven months, volunteers have immersed themselves in the issue. They’ve been trained on warning signs and prevention. They’ve begun sharing that training with neighbors while they scan the country for better ideas.
They call their effort “Davidson Lifeline.”
“I have never known any community to take a stance like this,” says Ellis Fields, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Central Carolinas.
“Davidson is often described as a ‘bubble town.’ But they’ve come to realize that rightfully or wrongfully, they cannot act or live in isolation, that what impacts the world impacts them.”
According to state statistics, several North Carolina cities and towns have similar or even higher suicide rates than Davidson. Regardless, Woods and other community leaders here thought too many of their neighbors had already died.
“John said, ‘This is a problem impacting our community and we simply have to do something about it,’ ” says town Commissioner Jim Fuller.
“It was that straight-forward. In a matter of a week, John was inviting and we were convening. The goal was to take steps, and to take them immediately.”
Today, the committee co-chaired by Hennighausen and Lisa Hilse continues to expand its campaign of training, education and prevention.
Two high school students have seats on the steering group. So does a top psychologist at Carolinas HeathCare System, which recently broke ground on a new psychiatric hospital in Davidson that will open next spring.
In early November, the group hosted a suicide-awareness rally that drew several hundred people to the Town Green.
Now, another arm of the group has begun contacting other cities around the country that have mounted their own campaigns, from Palo Alto, Calif., to Woodbury, Minn., to Cornell University/Ithaca, N.Y.
Other Davidson volunteers are schooling themselves on behavioral issues ranging from rising suicide rates for veterans to cyber bullying in schools.
“We don’t want to talk about suicides very much, but we have to talk,” says Woods. “We wanted to cut this issue open and air it out.”
Woods and other town leaders have received suicide-prevention training known as QPR, short for “Question, Persuade, Refer.”
This month, Davidson Lifeline started offering that training to the greater community, an effort to add mental health to the town’s “wellness” agenda for its residents.
Hennighausen says she can see a day when every high school teacher and student receives QPR, when every child targeted by bullies or any adult battling depression will have a “go-to” person in the community to call for help.
Soon, she hopes to live in a place where “Love thy Neighbor” includes a sharper ear for unspoken cries.
“Kids give out signs. People give out signs somehow, somewhere,” she says. “And if we’re not willing to step in, we’re going to lose more kids, and more and more people.”
Bigger than the stats
Suicide rates have been rising across the country for more than a decade. In recent years, the increase has been fueled by a crippled economy, the homecoming of thousands of damaged soldiers returning from distant wars, even the country’s growing access to prescription drugs.
A suicide report last week by the Centers for Disease Control shows that rates for middle-aged Americans jumped almost 30 percent between 1999 and 2010.
All towns, big and small, experience them. A true comparison is difficult since experts believe as many as 20 percent of the cases go unreported.
“We know we’re not counting all suicides,” Julie Phillips, a Rutgers sociologist, told the New York Times.
In places like Davidson, a few deaths can significantly change the rate. In 2011, when the town had three reported deaths, its suicide rate was 27.3. Five deaths in 2012 pushed the figure to 45.4.
By comparison, the Caldwell County town of Granite Falls, though less than half the size of Davidson, had twice as many suicides (8 to 3) and a rate of 170.2 in 2011.
Big impact on small places
In small towns, suicides are rarely private acts. The victims are often friends, a friend’s parent, a classmate or a co-worker. In Davidson’s case, so many families have come from somewhere else that friends soon become surrogate families, Hennighausen says.
In 2012, 11 Davidson residents attempted suicide, according to figures prepared by the town.
Five succeeded. The dead represented a cross section of the community, from an 87-year-old man to a 17-year-old girl and a boy, 16.
The final impetus for action came from the back-to-back deaths of two local high school students. One of them was Jocelyn Desmond, Jaletta Desmond’s daughter.
“The Desmonds did everything right,” Hennighausen says of her friends. “They had resources. They had help. They were providing everything they knew to provide. But it still happened. And that helped a lot of people understand that it can happen anywhere.”
John Deem, a senior editor with the Lake Norman Citizen in Huntersville and one of about two dozen Lifeline committee members, says the ongoing effort is typical of Davidson.
“There’s no big publicity campaign,” says Deem, who over the past year has written extensively on suicides, including his daughter’s own attempt.
“There’s just a mobilization of more and more people, training them, helping all of us recognize where there might be the potential for a suicide, and that’s a lot different than ‘Just Say No.’ ”
Part of the real world
In the weeks ahead, various Lifeline study groups will compile a report, identifying what students, schools, veterans groups and other stakeholders need to confront the problem.
The group hopes to make the fall rally an annual event. A triathlon or road race also is being discussed.
“In my professional experience, this is unique,” says committee member Dr. Tom Gettelman, vice president of CMC-Randolph, a psychiatric hospital in Charlotte.
“Both personally and professionally, this has been amazing.”
Adds Woods: “It only takes one tragedy to see that we are not idyllic. We are not perfect. We are not, thankfully, that different from everybody else.”
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