News

Efforts raise suicide awareness

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

One hundred and one people committed suicide in Pierce County last year, according to the Pierce County medical examiner, and 200 people committed suicide in King County in 2002, the most recent data available from that county’s medical examiner. Firearms accounted for the majority of the suicides in both counties.

Parents, siblings, spouses, children and friends of people who committed suicide walked laps at Federal Way Memorial Stadium in observation of Puget Sound Suicide Awareness Day Sept. 12. Walkers carried a pair of shoes to remember people they’ve lost.

Teens and young adults, ages 15 to 24, have long made up the majority of suicides, though the number of adults older than 65 has increased over the past few years, according to King County statistics.

Kathy Melsness, president of the board of directors for the Auburn chapter of Survivors of Suicide, said Saturday’s event was intended to raise awareness and provide education for the public, so parents, siblings, children, spouses and friends know what to do or say when they suspect a loved one is contemplating suicide.

Booths at the stadium had information on mental health, depression, teen suicide prevention and support for survivors of those who have taken their own lives.

Melsness said suicide can be stopped if people get help soon enough.

“We want to educate and make people aware that this is a disease just like any other, like cancer, tuberculosis or diabetes, and people can go on to live a very fulfilled life,” she said. “It’s a disease, and it’s curable.”

Melsness’ daughter, Marlene, was a 17-year-old junior at Decatur High School in Federal Way when she committed suicide 17 years ago. Melsness said she was intelligent, smart and funny, pretty and an accomplished soccer player and downhill skier.

Her family and friends were stunned when Marlene locked herself in the garage with the car running. She had a ski trip planned with friends, and she had a good job at an insurance company.

“I just wanted to ask, ‘What was going on that you snapped?’” Melsness said. “Well, she had a chemical imbalance. The mind is a very complicated thing. It’s never one thing. It’s a combination of things.”

Marlene’s boyfriend had broken up with her, but she seemed to be taking it in stride.

“She was taking it far too well,” Melsness said. “She was laughing, but not inside.”

Marlene thought her athletic build was overweight, and when she learned she’d gained a pound during weigh-ins at school, she “just flipped out,” Melsness said. A close female friend had recently moved away and she had a drinking problem.

“It’s a ream of things, and it finally crescendos and one little thing breaks them,” Welsness said. “There’s no rhyme or reason.”

Marlene had tried to call a friend, but he was busy. Her friends and brother were at school, and Melsness was at work. Marlene went home alone.

“She calmed herself with a couple wine coolers, put the cat out, went into the garage and turned the ignition on,” Melsness said. “The coroner said it probably took six minutes for the garage to be engulfed in exhaust.”

Melsness said there aren’t any rules for the grieving process, and suicide can leave survivors horrified, angry and struggling with how to cope. Dropping in on a support group can help, she said.

“It’s a fellowship,” she said. “It’s the worst sorority you ever want to be a member of.”

Still, there’s support.

“You’re not alone any more. This is a world problem that’s been going on forever,” she said.

Some members of support groups have tried to commit suicide themselves to relieve the pain of the grief they’re experiencing. Melsness encourages them to just live one day at a time.

“Just don’t give up. You have to talk about it,” she said. “Take it one day at a time. That’s the way you have to do it.”

Some people cope by putting away all the reminders of their loved one, packing pictures and clothes into boxes. Melsness said she won’t do that with Marlene.

“I had 17 fantastic years,” Welsness said. “She taught me things. I was angry with her, I was ecstatic with her, she was part of my life. I’m not going to put her away like she didn’t exist.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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