Walking to prevent suicide

A Southwest family organizes a new fund-raiser to keep other families from experiencing the loss they did

Sheena Driscoll was an active teen who liked playing soccer and painting in her Southwest High School art class. Her parents, Armatage residents Tom and Shirley Driscoll, describe her as a "gentle spirit and an artist" and liken her to a flower — her favorite was a yellow rose.

Sheena would have been a college junior this year, but she succumbed to depression and took her own life in August 2001 at 17.

While the Driscolls have survived this unimaginable loss, they’re still grieving and want to help others like Sheena get through the dark.

"I’ve spent some sleepless nights thinking that someone’s in the same position Sheena was," Tom Driscoll said.

For Tom Driscoll, suicide’s grip is especially wrenching — he previously lost two sisters to suicide. "This is the third time this has happened to me," he said.

"This year, we decided we wanted to start doing something to help people with depression," Shirley Driscoll said.

So the Driscolls have organized a benefit walk — which they hope to do annually — at Lake Harriet on Saturday, Aug. 14 (for details, see sidebar). Proceeds will benefit an organization called SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) that works to prevent suicide and help families that have lost someone to suicide.

Fighting depression

The Driscolls said Sheena was a happy, busy teen, until depression took hold. "She just started struggling with depression and got withdrawn," he said.

"It’s like watching someone in incredible pain that people don’t understand," Shirley Driscoll added.

Tom Driscoll said there’s a strong link between depression and suicide, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24, behind car accidents.

"So many people have depression — it’s as common as the flu," Shirley Driscoll said.

Despite those numbers, the Driscolls said when they began seeking treatment for Sheena’s depression, they discovered how little help there was for high-risk teenagers such as their daughter.

Shirley Driscoll said the family had to drive almost to Duluth to find an adolescent psychiatrist, in part because insurance companies made Sheena’s treatment difficult.

Shirley Driscoll said she was frustrated that insurance companies wouldn’t pay for alternative methods of care when medication failed. "You try everything when you have cancer," she said. "Try everything for mental illness."

Shirley Driscoll said a lot of people also don’t want to accept that their children are mentally ill, writing it off as a teenage thing. They said this phase of denial makes it harder for kids to get help.

"A lot of parents have trouble accepting that (depression) is in their family," she said. "Society in general needs to look at it differently"

SAVE, based in Edina, works to raise awareness about suicide prevention via billboards, media campaigns and school visits.

Denise Dumas manages SAVE’s Community Education and Volunteering programs and also has lost loved ones to suicide. She said the organization’s big goal during middle-school and high-school visits is to get people to talk about depression and seek help if they need it.

Dumas said suicides are becoming more common among younger children, ages 10 to 14 — now the fastest-growing age group for suicides.

She said 95 percent of suicides are caused by untreated depression and, with teens, it can be particularly hard to diagnose, as depression can mimic teenage moodiness. The Driscolls said that depression screening can often catch those at risk.

Dumas said there are numerous signs of depression to look out for, especially if four or more have lasted longer than two weeks:

– Feeling sad, empty or numb

– Feeling guilty, angry or moody

– Can’t sleep or have trouble sleeping

– Loss of interest

– Difficulty concentrating

– Crying easily

– Feeling alone, even when with friends

– Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol

Dumas said there are also indicators that a person is contemplating suicide, such an obsession with death and having a sudden interest in knives and guns.

She said suicidal people commonly get their affairs in order — for example, atypically cleaning their room or returning borrowed things.

Dumas also said contrary to popular belief, most suicidal people try to reach out before taking their life. "Most people that are going to kill themselves talk about it — it might not be directly, but they do," she said.

After losing someone to suicide, Dumas said it’s often helpful for a family to volunteer for an organization like SAVE, so they can do something and avoid feeling helpless.

She said this spring in particular they’ve been flooded with offers for third-party fund-raisers such as the Driscoll’s, to raise money and memorialize loved ones lost.

Grieving

Following Sheena’s death, the Driscolls said support from the community and Sheena’s friends got them through the horrific time. They said people surprised them with their empathy, whether by bringing food by their house or cleaning the home while they were away. "In the days following her death, they carried us," Shirley Driscoll said.

She said Sheena’s friends are away at college now but still come by on the anniversary of her death and on Christmas. She said though it’s bittersweet to see them, she’s still glad they come.

The Driscolls now focus their energy on their son Luke, 14. However, Tom Driscoll said they make sure to talk about Sheena often. "It’s a huge part of our lives. There’s a huge gaping hole in our hearts," Shirley Driscoll said.

The Driscolls hope people will learn from their loss and support their quest. They could still use volunteers for the walk and are hoping to arrange for a yellow rose to go to all walk participants.