published Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Support groups comfort those left behind after suicide

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The Suicide Survivors Support Group meets in the Memorial Hospital formal dining room on the first Thursday of every month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information contact Hylda Bevans at 423-697-9432.

On Saturday, in a private dining room at Memorial Hospital, a small group joined around a table to talk about life after a loved one's suicide.

Linda, a soft-spoken mother of two, talked about her husband of 35 years, who died in May. She remembered him as an avid fisherman, a goofy humorist, a professional, an Eagle Scout.

"We went on our first date the week before I turned 16," Linda said, crying. "He was my first love."

Jimmy Powell, a retired teacher, talked about his 27-year-old son, a Chattanooga State student who committed suicide 12 years ago after suffering debilitating headaches for two years.

And Hylda Bevans talked about her 35-year-old son, who took his own life after battling cancer.

Surviving after a loved one commits suicide is never easy, they told each other. Friends and other family are often too afraid to bring up memories of the dead, too afraid to speak their names in public. But those who have lost people to suicide try to share what they can about the unthinkable and get comfort for the loss.

They can't stand to see the person they loved reduced to a moment of irreversible self-harm.

"I told my kids, I don't want his life to be defined by this act," Linda said. "There were so many good things."

A handful of people comes through the Suicide Survivors Support Group on the first Thursday of every month at Memorial. For some, the wound is fresh; for others it has festered for years. State suicide prevention specialists say support groups, which have nearly doubled in the last year to total 14 statewide, have helped curb more suicides.

"A family who loses someone to suicide is at a greater risk to suicide," said Scott Ridgway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. "[These groups] help the grief process. It gives people a chance to ask 'Why? How could I have intervened?'"

Suicide in Tennessee has been on the rise for many years, especially among teens. And experts expected recession woes and Nashville flooding to increase the numbers last year, but a surprising dip occurred. In 2008, 965 suicides were recorded, but in 2010 there were 932, said Ridgway.

Some teen suicides may have been prevented after a state law began requiring all teachers to have suicide prevention training, he said.

Still, suicide is among the 10 leading causes of death among Tennesseans and is above the national average, documents show.

The greatest concern right now is suicide deaths among middle-aged men from 40 to 65, a group that is very hard to reach.

At more than 20 per 100,000 people, suicides among the middle-aged in Tennessee are four times higher than youth suicides.

The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network plans to launch a statewide campaign in the spring called Man Up. The goal is to curb suicide stigma and bring more awareness to men, who tend to ignore mental health problems and increased stress.

"The construction worker that just lost his job, that instead of getting help is drinking and taking drugs and goes into a clinical depression, where do we go to reach those folk?" Ridgway said.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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