As a teenager, Erica Smith felt completely disconnected from her peers. She felt like they were easily enjoying life, and she wasn’t able to enjoy anything at all. She was feeling shame, anxiety, fear and exhaustion.
Smith had experienced sexual trauma in middle school and high school. She received support afterward, but then people quit checking on her and she didn't talk about it.
“I felt like what happened to me wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant the feelings that I was having," she said. "I felt ashamed about what happened and how much it was impacting me. I felt like everyone else in my life had moved on and I needed to, but I couldn’t.”
At first, Smith said she felt like she needed a break and wished she could just disappear — leave her body and the pain behind. She began to think about how she could make that happen, which turned into thoughts of death and dying.
“I began thinking about ways that I could die, and it went on for a really long time,” she said. “They were constant and they consumed me. It relentlessly stole my energy every day.”
She also began to think: Would anyone care? She thought so, but she also thought she was a burden to other people who would be better off without her. All of these experiences were piled on top of sleep deprivation, which magnifies symptoms. Her breaking point? A bad basketball practice.
She attempted suicide — at age 15. After the attempt, she reached out to her mother and asked for help, and she began going to therapy.
Now, at age 24, Smith continues to go to therapy.
“That’s a really big support that I rely on heavily,” she said. “I still struggle, and I need support and I’m a regular person.” Part of her therapy is helping others.
Know the warning signs
According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, some warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased or seems related to a painful event, loss or change. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these, seek help by calling the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255):
• Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
• Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or isolating themselves
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Having extreme mood swings
Smith, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work, has been a volunteer at Headquarters Counseling Center since 2014. The Lawrence-based center has trained volunteer counselors who answer calls 24/7 at 785-841-2345. They also answer calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Kansas at 800-273-8255 (TALK). Smith encourages anyone who needs support to call those numbers.
“You could be sad, depressed, feeling anxious or heartbroken — we are here to listen and offer support,” Smith said. “We also talk to lots of people who are concerned about loved ones.
“Too often, people don’t think what they’re going through is as bad as someone else, so they shame themselves into being quiet, and that silence is harmful.”
Smith is a member of the Douglas County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which is working to break the silence and reduce the stigma associated with suicide. Its efforts include educating the public about suicide and suicide prevention and offering resources and training to residents. The coalition’s members represent organizations across the county.
“Our goal is to open the conversation about suicide, reduce the shame and silence that have clung to suicide for far too long, and strive toward prevention of suicide,” said Anna Barger, chair of the coalition. “By working together and talking about it, we can all help prevent suicide.”
For help, these resources are available 24/7:
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-8255
• Headquarters Counseling Center — 785-841-2345
• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center — 785-843-9192
• Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741
The coalition is hosting a screening of “The S Word,” a new documentary addressing suicide, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, in the Kansas Union’s Woodruff Auditorium on the University of Kansas campus. The 90-minute film delves into the hearts and minds of suicide attempt survivors, along with their families and loved ones.
The screening will be followed by a conversation with the film’s director, Lisa Klein, who lost her brother and father to suicide 35 years ago when she was in college. After their deaths, she experienced fear, shame and deep sadness.
“These were two of the most important people in my life. It was so incredibly sad, and I’m still dealing with it,” Klein said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
When she first began working on the film, it was going to be about people who had experienced suicide loss. However, through her research, she found a thriving community of people who had attempted suicide and survived. Many of them were advocating and helping other people — like Smith.
“It’s so important to talk to somebody, to listen to somebody and not be ashamed of the word — suicide,” Klein said.
She also hopes people feel less alone.
“For people who have been there and on that edge, I want them to know there are people and places to turn to,” she said. “There is no burden in helping someone you love through something. That’s part of the deal. That’s part of being in somebody’s life. We are all struggling with something.”
• 44,000 people die each year in the United States from suicide.
• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., Kansas and Douglas County.
• Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34.
• A total of 1,443 Kansas residents died by suicide in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The number has increased each year: 454 in 2014, 477 in 2015 and 512 in 2016.
• Someone dies from suicide every 18 hours in Kansas.
• A total of 53 Douglas County residents died by suicide in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
• Research suggests that for every death by suicide, there are 25 attempts.
• 1 in 5 Americans have suicidal thoughts.
• Lawrence Memorial Hospital had 207 emergency room visits that were suicide attempts between January and August of this year.
• 25,000 calls were answered by Headquarters Counseling Center in 2016.
— Karrey Britt is the communications coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.