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The nation was stunned last month by the news that one of the funniest guys in the entertainment industry who appeared always jovial and happy took his own life.

Robin Williams, 63, who entertained audiences as a comedian for more than four decades died Aug. 11, a grim reminder that despair of the deepest kind can affect anyone.

On one hand, he seemed an unlikely person to commit suicide. He had a successful career in a long list of box office hits, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, several Golden Globes and an Academy Award, the adoration of millions of viewers and a beautiful family. On the other hand, suicide happens most often among white males with substance abuse problems and depression. Williams battled both. He also fell into the age category with the highest suicide rate — 18.6%, according to the CDC’s 2011 figures for age 45 to 64.

According to Save.org, Williams is one of about 40,000 people who commit suicide each year in the United States. A person dies by suicide every 13.3 minutes.

September is Suicide Prevention Month and chapters across the country of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program are working to spread information on warning signs of potential suicides and what you can do to help those who are suffering. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has scheduled walks to raise awareness and funds for the cause. Locally, you’ll find walks in Munster and Chesterton as well as at Chicago’s Grant Park.

Out of the Darkness

Tina Kottka, who lost her 21-year-old son, Steven Siokos, four years ago to suicide, has made it her mission to help others who are contemplating suicide and those who have lost someone to it.

Just a few months after her son's death, she assembled a team to participate in the Out of the Darkness suicidie prevention walk in Munster. This year she will participate for the fourth time with a group of more than 50 family and friends.

Kottka, of Griffith, also has received training through the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention in a program called More Than Sad to conduct prevention programs in local schools. She plans to reach out to school administrators to introduce it as much as she can in high schools in Northwest Indiana and hopefully eventually in some middle schools, as well.

Kottka has found solace in comforting teenagers who have suffered a loss from suicide. She is a leader for a teen support group of the Wounded Healers of Northwest Indiana, a larger grief support system with specialized subgroups.

She counsels those in the 13 to 19 age group every other week at St. James the Less Church in Griffith. She’s been working with the group for about a year.

“My goal is to let people know you can survive it,” she said. “I’ve seen someone who was totally desperate who didn’t think she could go on, and it is amazing to see the change in attitude. It’s great seeing that.”

Now Kottka is looking forward to helping more teens through spreading awareness through the More Than Sad program.

“I want to go to the schools and talk to the kids and let them know that whatever they are going through is temporary and they can work it out by talking to someone,” she said.

Debbie Bushor, of Lansing, lost her 57-year-old sister, Vickie, to suicide two years ago.

“She battled with depression for a very long time, at least 20 years,” Bushor said. “She had threatened to do it a few times.”

Bushor said attempts to help her sister get treatment for depression were never successful and that a recent job loss probably worsened to her depression. Since her sister lived in Las Vegas, her support was usually limited to phone conversations.

“I’d want to call police, but couldn’t call every time. I was very torn about it,” she said. “If you think someone might do it, try to get them help, as mad as they may get at you. It’s a hard line to cross.

“She left a note and said that she didn’t feel like she could get out of the place she was in.” 

Bushor said she was surprised when she attended her sister's memorial to learn how many people she had touched.

“She gave the impression that she didn’t have anyone that would help out there, but when we went out to California for her memorial, I couldn’t believe how many people were there that said they would have helped,” Bushor said. 

Unfortunately, he sister didn’t reach out for help, as is common with those suffering from depression.

Support is out there

Guilt and regret among survivors are common, and specialized support groups have helped grieving families following suicide of a family member.

Karyn Mascio, of Lansing, lost her brother Carl, 24, to suicide 19 years ago after his discharge from the Navy.

“Everything seemed normal. He got a job, ordered a new motorcycle, was planning on getting braces and looking into school,” she said. "However, life had changed so much while he was away. His friends got married and had children of their own. He had left his military family.”

Mascio was 26 at the time and she said that a program through Catholic Charities called Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) was a tremendous help. “It was a support group and helped us not feel so alone in our feelings.”

Kayla Dousias, of Beecher, can’t emphasize enough the ripple effect that a suicide has on a family and a community. Dousias lost her son, Niketa, at age 20 in 2011.

“We’re in a small tight-knit community. It touches so many lives. My concern immediately was for our surviving son and then their friends,” she said.

She was soon on a crusade to help bring awareness to suicide and help others reach out to those they think may need help or to those who may be contemplating suicide. She has brought a Yellow Ribbon chapter to her community, gotten the community involved in walking in the local July 4th parade to distribute information, taken part in the Out of Darkness Walk campaign and worked with school administration in Beecher to bring awareness programs.

At Beecher High School, two programs have emerged because of Dousias’ involvement and passion to empower teens and young adults with tools to help them cope and to help their peers cope.

Beecher High Principal Nathan Schilling said both programs have been an outgrowth of a districtwide social and emotional growth initiative. One is a suicide prevention awareness program called Signs of Suicide. The program has been connected to the regular curriculum with an introduction video and house groups with teacher leaders to encourage better communication among students and staff.

“We’re empowering kids to go to staff and adults rather than being passive and silent,” Schilling said.

In the statewide 5 Essentials surveys, Schilling said results have shown significant data that student/teacher trust and community outreach has improved.

“Students are coming to teachers more and have been able to identify suicide indicators,” he said. “There’s more of a connection.”

The second program that has been implemented is the Safe School Ambassador initiative, where students are selected to help foster good relationships among students.

“We took volunteers and pinpointed and encouraged students who had characteristics of it — those with a strong moral compass, a sense of responsibility and good leadership skills who could have open, honest discussions with peers,” Schilling said.

Dousias said the program helps prevent bullying and abuses that can go on in school and makes for a more accepting environment and a better overall school climate.

“Our son’s death really (blindsided) us. I knew he was struggling with some personal issues, but we felt like we were on top of things," Dousias said. "I knew he was sad over some circumstances, but never thought he’d take his own life.

“He did it in an irrational moment, and tragically there is nothing we are able to do as parents. It’s my heart’s desire to keep others from going through this. That’s why I’ve chosen to spread awareness.”

It's OK to reach out for help

One big key, Dousias believes, in reducing the number of suicides is changing the stigma associated with mental health.

“People take medications to help organs function properly. Sometimes chemicals in the brain are off, and medications are needed to make it work properly. It’s a health need," she said. "People should not be shunned because of those needs. We need to help those that are suffering in that silence. By talking about it, it loses its power.”

Dousias and her husband, Alex, have organized a golf outing to raise funds and awareness. Funds have gone toward “buddy benches” being installed at the schools in community. Students who are looking for friends can sit on the bench as a signal for others to engage in conversation. They’ve also offered a character recognition scholarship in honor of their son where peers nominate a boy and girl who best exemplifies the school’s affirmation statement.

The main message Dousias wants to convey is it’s OK to ask for help.

It has become a slogan for the Yellow Ribbon chapter that she started in Beecher. She encourages others to start chapters within their own communities. More information can be found at YellowRibbon.org. Her chapter has a Facebook page called “Be A Voice.”

Ruth Stone, of Lynwood, was beginning to work toward her goal of earning a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at the time she lost her 23-year-old daughter, Christine, to suicide. Her daughter was married with two young children.

“Initially, I was in shock and even suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Her suicide has made me much more aware of the impact of suicide on survivors — something I had never before really considered,” Stone said.

Through the experience she said she is devoting more time to understand the grieving process and the unique challenge brought by losing a child, spouse, sibling or parent to suicide.

Although her daughter never was formally diagnosed, Stone said she recognizes that mental illness was a probable contributor. She said she did hear her daughter express suicidal thoughts at times.

“If a child expresses suicidal thoughts — ‘I wish I were dead,’ or ‘I wish I’d never been born’ or similar statements — take them seriously,” she urged. “Christina had made statements like those repeatedly since adolescence, and I became complacent. I thought she was just being dramatic. That was a huge mistake on my part. If your child is making statements like those, make it clear ahead of time that if they say it again, you will call 911 and then be prepared to follow through.”

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Features Editor