Our Views: Make that call to prevent suicide

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Friday, August 22, 2014

When a domestic argument led to a high-profile suicide Aug. 6 in Janesville, it prompted others to call crisis intervention specialists.

When actor Robin Williams hung himself Aug. 11, it triggered calls across the country from people considering suicide or fearing that loved ones might take their lives.

In Rock County, Tony Farrell Sr.’s cellphone rang more often. Though public speaking terrifies him, he has been talking about suicide prevention to anyone who will listen for five years. In an interview Tuesday, he repeatedly said, “This is not about me.” He praises the prevention network, but he is the county’s point man. He wants people to call him day or night, weekend or holiday, to prevent more deaths.

Farrell’s wife will find him up in the middle of the night, pacing, awaiting word from first responders about whether he needs to go to a scene or steer help for someone who attempted suicide or for family left behind.

The suicide of a friend’s father in elementary school had a profound effect on Farrell. In the military, three fellow soldiers committed suicide in rapid succession. Suicide even hit his extended family.

Farrell, a deputy coroner, started focusing on prevention after then-Coroner Jenifer Keach saw numbers rise from 15 in 2008 to 23 in 2009. They crafted a video to educate the public. Numbers spiked to 32 by 2011 but have declined steadily since. Farrell says Rock County people called help lines 2,129 times last year. This year, the county has had 10 “tragedies,” as he calls them, always using sensitive terms.

He heaps praise on many, including Keach and current Coroner Lou Smit, the chaplains who respond and media who publicize prevention efforts. He credits the 29 county board supervisors with helping his presentations reach all corners of the county. He praises law enforcement and firefighters who save lives by reaching scenes quickly. He appreciates how local schools battle bullying. He notes that Rock County has had just two juvenile suicides the past three years. That is two too many but fewer than in most places.

Farrell does presentations free. He pays for posters, gas and handouts. He does extensive research without charge. If someone offers money, he asks that it be given to charity.

His efforts focus on respect, dignity, kindness and compassion. He won’t reflect on specific cases out of respect for privacy, and he says each suicide affects him.

“You just never get over them.”

That’s the message Farrell conveys to those considering suicide—that the act will devastate survivors. On average, after a suicide, “six people will be profoundly affected for the rest of their lives,” he says.

“Some of these will never recover. An individual saved here in Rock County told me that was the biggest factor. ‘I now realize how devastating this could have been to my family, and I just did not give it a thought.’”

Farrell says warning signs are evident in 75 percent of cases. People threaten to hurt themselves, talk about death and dying or say they feel hopeless and have no purpose and their families will be better off without them. They might act recklessly, increase alcohol or drug abuse, withdraw or exhibit rage, anger or intense anxiety.

Robin Williams battled depression and alcohol abuse—key risk factors. Others include drug abuse, mental illness, joblessness and financial or relationship problems.

Early on, many people rejected Farrell’s offers to speak. They feared talking about suicide would put the idea into people’s minds.

“But education means prevention,” he counters. “They already have the idea in their heads. The more people who know the warning signs and make sure the person gets into treatment, those are success stories.

“Most think they can’t be helped, but they can. They’ve lost hope, but that’s where treatment is so important.”

Don’t hesitate to call, whatever the hour.

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper’s editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.

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