Three years ago, Joan Benedict-Dickey was blindsided with information about her daughter that would change her life forever.
"Chelsea suffered from an illness, a terminal illness, and that was depression," Benedict-Dickey said. "I lost my daughter, my only child, to suicide June 12, 2007. She was 22."
It came as a shock to everyone, especially Chelsea Parnell's mother who had just made plans with her daughter to celebrate Chelsea's graduation from nursing school. Although she had been diagnosed with depression her junior year in high school, Benedict-Dickey said her daughter was usually seen as a happy person and had never made any previous attempts to end her life. The first day she turned a gun on herself was the same day Benedict-Dickey was forced to say goodbye.
"I've been through hell and back," Benedict-Dickey said. "It's so different as far as the grief you feel for losing someone ... to something like cancer or even a car accident. There are just so many unanswered questions."
Benedict-Dickey is just one out of a number of Oklahomans left dealing with the heartbreak of losing a loved one to suicide. And some worry that with a national recession and an increase in media coverage of people committing suicide, the rate of suicide is increasing.
According to the most recent statistics released by the National Center for Health Statistics, Oklahoma ranked 13th in the nation for its suicide rate in 2007. At the age of 22, Chelsea was one of the 516 people who committed suicide that year in Oklahoma, according to a Suicide in Oklahoma report released by the Oklahoma State Department of Health in March.
Tom Taylor, II, said for the past several years, this number has lingered around 500 to 525. However, an increase in 2008 to 2010 is likely, said the executive director and CEO of HeartLine, a nonprofit organization that answers calls 24/7 for crisis and suicide prevention. Just from January to Sept. 30, calls to HeartLine have increased by 65 percent.
However, Taylor said the increase in calls is not as alarming as one might think. The nonprofit has increased awareness of the crisis phone number, which is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), by putting up billboards in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and a number of rural areas. Last April, Google also partnered with the organization allowing the phone number to come up any time someone types the word "suicide" into the search bar.
However, the numbers of calls and attempted suicides might be reaching a high point this year because of other reasons too, Taylor said.
"Oklahoma is so insolated, so what people were experiencing with the recession in the coastal areas in 2009, Oklahomans were experiencing that early this year," Taylor said.
Also, many high-profile cases of young people committing suicide due to bullying could have caused the increase in calls, and might cause an increase in attempted suicides.
"As more people hear about it, it's a double-edged sword," Taylor said. "There is an increased awareness, but someone feeling lonely ... might see someone who committed suicide covered in the news ... which could lead to copycat suicides."
Certainly coincidentally, after a Sept. 28 Norman city council meeting that focused on homosexuality, 19-year-old Zach Harrington, a Norman native who was living in Arkansas and drove home for the meeting, killed himself. And just before the end of the meeting, the council had voted 7-1 to recognize October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Month in the city of Norman.
No matter the various burdens that push people to end their own lives, the sadness that envelopes friends and family can happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, Benedict-Dickey said.
"There are no boundaries," she said. "It doesn't just happen to dysfunctional families or divorced families. It knows no race, not rich or poor, Christian or Catholic -- it can happen to anyone."
To get the message out that there is help for those contemplating suicide, dealing with depression or suffering from the loss of a loved one, Benedict-Dickey works tirelessly to spread the story about her daughter. Her car is decorated in pictures of Chelsea and with sayings describing the need to break the silence about suicide.
"There's such a stigma behind it and that's what I want to change," she said. "You're not alone out there. It's not something to be ashamed of."
Now, to encourage people to talk about suicide prevention and help others begin the healing process, Benedict-Dickey is coordinating the annual Out of the Darkness community walk in Tulsa, which includes three to five mile walks where participants are able to join other survivors who have lost loved ones to suicide while also bringing awareness to the often hushed subject.
Benedict-Dickey said she hopes the community walk will serve as a healing experience for those who are coping with the loss of a loved one.
"It helps to be around others and know that they have walked in your shoes," she said.
The Out of the Darkness community walk, which benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will begin at 10am Saturday, Oct. 16 at Hunter Park. After seeing almost 100 people participate its first year in 2008, Benedict-Dickey said the number of walkers doubled last year. She expects that number to double again this year.
To register for the event, visit outofthedarkness.org. Registration closes on the website on Oct. 15, but participants can register in person the day of the walk from 9-10am.
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