When Jennifer Sikora’s younger sister Christine stopped taking her depression medications, skipped appointments with her therapist and started partying, Sikora didn’t recognize the warning signs.
But Christine, who was 26 at the time, committed suicide in 2001.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face in my life,” Sikora said. “I didn’t realize the warning signs were all there for my sister until that day that I found out about her death. I only wish I had the realization beforehand.”
Sikora, now the associate area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s western Pennsylvania chapter, said had she known how to recognize warning signs and to speak up about her concerns at the time, it could have changed the outcome.
After her sister’s death, Sikora struggled with her own suicidal thoughts. If she’d realized it was OK to talk about her thoughts and feelings, Sikora would have gotten treatment sooner, she said.
In Pennsylvania, suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death, with an average of one person dying by suicide every five hours here, according to the AFSP.
In an effort to help curb that number, the AFSP’s western Pennsylvania chapter held Talk Saves Lives — a one-hour suicide prevention presentation — in the Union Ballroom at 5 p.m. Tuesday evening. The event aimed to teach students about the warning signs of suicide and how suicide can be prevented.
The warning signs, according to Jenna Heberle, chairperson for the AFSP’s western Pennsylvania chapter, include changes in behavior, changes in mood and the at-risk individual talking about death and suicide. As Heberle spoke to the crowd, she openly discussed her personal involvement with suicide and, though she didn’t specify many details, said she wished she had learned about warning signs earlier.
“I didn’t know a lot of this stuff, and I wish I had,” Heberle said. “I didn’t even know to look for these things, and I wish I had.”
Along with providing practical information, her lecture was interspersed with personal stories of the speaker’s lives surrounding mental health and suicide.
Heberle explained that those warning signs could have prevented the loss experienced in her own family, but said she hopes talking openly about warning signs will prevent losses in others’ families.
“You can prevent suicide,” Heberle said. “If you come away with one thing, I hope that thing is that there is never anything to be ashamed of with talking about mental health issues, especially here on a college campus.”
The event on Tuesday was the second time the foundation and Pitt’s Student Government Board held the event. Max Kneis –– SGB member and sitting member of the mental health task force on campus –– helped organize the two events.
“We wanted to bring in the foundation to talk about prevention on a couple of different days so that students had several opportunities to get this training and learn that things can be done to prevent suicide,” Kneis, a junior accounting and finance major, said.
Kneis said there were about 100 students in attendance between the two lecture times. They planned to host the lectures over Mental Health Awareness month and before International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, which is Nov. 19, to reduce stigma about mental health and “get people talking,” Kneis said.
According to Suicide Prevention Resource Center research, there are more than 1,000 suicides that occur on college campuses per year, making the placement of this talk at Pitt even more necessary in the fight to prevent suicide.
Ian Snyder, a junior neuroscience and political science major, attended the lecture unsure of what to expect, but said that the points regarding prevention of suicide reminded him of times he has been with individuals who have contemplated suicide.
“Being on a college campus, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re supporting the community around us in any way that they might need support,” Snyder said.
Snyder said his main reason for attending the lecture was to prevent discussions around suicide from being uncomfortable.
“For me, more than anything, it’s about starting a thought process about looking for signs and making sure they don’t lead to something more drastic,” Snyder said.
Tuesday evening’s lecture, according to Heberle, was about teaching students not only how to talk about suicide and suicidal thoughts, but that it is acceptable to do so.
“Not enough people, not enough places are talking about it,” Heberle said. “That’s why we are here and we are talking about it — to save lives.”
Where to Get Help if You or Someone You Know is in Crisis:
Contact the Pitt Student Counseling Center: (412) 648-7930
Contact Allegheny County’s Resolve Crisis Hotline: 1-888-7-YOU CAN
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Text for Crisis Support: TEXT “GO” TO 741741