Year of loss stokes discussion on suicide prevention, mental health

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The conversation surrounding suicides in Taos County is by no means new. Those who have lived here for years – or for generations – are aware that New Mexico consistently ranks among the top five states in terms of suicide rates, overall, and youth suicides, specifically. Taos County itself records some of the highest rates per capita in the state each year.

According to the most recent report by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI), 16 people in Taos County have lost their lives this year due to suicide. They include 14 adults and two children. Four occurred at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, including a 14-year-old male.

By the numbers, it has not been the worst year on record. However, those figures do not take into account numerous suicide threats and attempts that buzz across emergency services and law enforcement radio channels each week, nor do they account for deaths that may be incorrectly classified as “accidental,” such as those that occur due to drug overdose.

The numbers would also require extrapolations of many multiples to account for the total number of people in our community who have been affected by the suicides that have occurred this year and over time. Indeed, Taos seems to have become a strong, if not archetypal, example of the common observation that suicide never affects just one person, as evidenced by the palpable concern and call for action that has rippled throughout the area this year.

As The Taos News looks back on the stories and issues that have sparked the most discussion and concern among our readers, suicide ranks high on the list. In an effort to further the conversation, we recently reached out to members of our community who are most deeply involved in and affected by this issue. One of those most affected is Heather Lynn Sparrow, the mother of Trempealeau Hagios Morninglight, the 14-year-old male who died at the Gorge Bridge on July 22.

A family speaks

Sparrow has lived in Taos with her family for 24 years and runs the photography program at Taos Academy. She has experienced and captured many of life’s moments through the lens. But she said that her experience with death over the past five months has been a first – “a tremendous loss,” she said, but one that she says she is grateful to have gone through with the support of the Taos community.

“I couldn’t be in any better care or family,” Sparrow said, speaking at her home in Taos. “It will have been five months on [Dec. 22] since Trempealeau passed. My recovery process is amazing. I feel so much gratitude every day for choosing the community that I did. I could not have had better support.”

When asked where her support has come from, she says, “About 600 people. Everyone came out of the woodwork. There was food, there was money.”

Sparrow explained that her recovery process was not one of isolation, but was shared with her son’s friends at Taos Academy. “I actually went back to work after it happened,” she said. “They were all close with my son. I wanted to be there for them. I didn’t want to withdraw.”

The conversation with Sparrow evolved from the day her son was recovered from the gorge to a discussion of grief to recollections of the many years she had spent working with her son in her home photography studio.

Her art form, she explained, has been a cathartic activity all her life and – during her recovery – an essential component of returning to a normal life.

When asked about the discussions about improvements to make the Gorge Bridge a safer destination, she said that the most important thing that Taos needs to focus on is “listening to our children.”

In an interview earlier this week, Brendan Curran, Trempealeau’s father, explained that his son had returned from a mountain biking trip the day before his death. He had suffered a head injury after running into a tree, though no one noticed anything out of the ordinary after he returned home that night.

“This wasn’t a suicide,” Curran said during a phone interview. “After he came back from Colorado that night, he took the keys and drove back across the Gorge Bridge like he was late for an appointment. If he had told me that something was wrong, I would have handcuffed myself to him. He never used drugs, he wasn’t depressed, but he hit his head in such a way that caused this to happen.”

Both Sparrow and Curran credit Taos’ Golden Willow Retreat with helping them through recovery. “I don’t think I could have spoken to you a week ago,” Curran said.

He explained that if the bridge were less accessible, the railing surrounding it higher and safer, the outcome might have been different.

“There are plenty of places to jump into the gorge,” he said. “But there’s something about that bridge. It’s just too easy.”

Bridge changes

Since the Gorge Bridge was first constructed in 1965, it has become one of New Mexico’s most iconic landmarks. Hundreds – if not thousands – of tourists come and go each month, many of them not knowing that the more-than-500-foot span carries a very different reputation for many who live in Taos and nearby areas.

The suicides this year, particularly those by youth, have caused many in the community to apply renewed pressure on state officials to follow through on decades of discussion and proposals to execute infrastructure changes at the bridge.

In a phone interview this week, Tom Church, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, talked to The Taos News about where things stand after 50 years – a period in which at least 42 people are estimated to have died at the bridge.

“Any death at the bridge is, of course, not acceptable,” Church said. “We’re now looking at the next step and have issued an RFP (request for proposals) that should come back to us in the next few weeks.”

But the installation of a safety net or a higher railing – two of the more popular proposals – could take years to complete.

“The RFP will start the process of public involvement,” he said. “We will do a complete structural analysis. There are weight factors, snow and ice conditions to consider. There are many steps.”

Margaret “Curly” O’Connor lost her son to suicide at the Gorge Bridge in 2014. She has since become a leading proponent of installing safety measures at the bridge. She, too, believes that if the railing had been higher, she and her family might have been able to save her son when they went to rescue him two years ago in April.

“I saw him walking towards the bridge, so I jumped out of my car and started running,” O’Connor recalled. “We saw him jump over the bridge so easily. That’s when it became real apparent to me: Had there been a bit of a deterrent, a taller railing, we might have been able to save him.”

O’Connor has been working with town of Taos officials to make the changes a reality. Taos County Commissioner Jim Fambro believes that the state “works harder at putting us off on doing it than anything else.”

“There’s always excuses, reasons for not doing any improvements at the bridge. If you go almost anywhere else in the world, you see suicide barriers on bridges. There’s got to be some way we can get this done,” Fambro said.

Resource challenges

Since funding was slashed in recent years, mental health and counseling services in Taos have also been challenged to keep up with a community that reels each year from a consistently high suicide rate.

For example, Tri-County Community Services provides service to an area covering about 10,000 square miles.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we have and the staff we’ve got,” said Charles Wemple, a psychiatric mental health registered nurse at Tri-County. “We simply need more support from the state.”

Right now, Tri-County receives next to no funding, primarily relying on clients to pay, most of whom rely on Medicaid to receive treatment. Funds are so thin, in fact, that the organization had to close down its detox center – the only one that existed in Taos County – last year.

Executive Director Sue Mulvaney said that many of the clients they have seen over the past year are also seeking treatment for depression or suicidal behavior. This year, there has been a noticeable spike in those seeking treatment for these and related conditions.

“Suicidal despair comes on in waves,” Mulvaney said. “It is fleeting, temporary, passing stress or a mental state when a permanent decision can be made. And in the middle of that existential panic, it can be impossible to visualize or really be aware of other people’s feelings. It’s very hard, in the middle of that moment, for people to reach out because it’s just so abstract for them.”

Mulvaney and Wemple both agreed that, while clinical treatment is essential, sometimes the best guard against suicide can be educating those in the community about the signs of depression and red flags that may indicate an individual is high risk for suicide.

Community resources

  • Golden Willow Retreat: Since 2001, Ted Wiard and his team have specialized in providing individuals who have experienced trauma due to a death in the family, a suicide – any reason that might cause an individual to “hurt” – with counseling and retreat resources that can enable “balance and a higher quality of life.” Call (575) 776-2024 or visit goldenwillowretreat.com.
  • Gorge Bridge Safety Network: Margaret “Curly” O’Connor started the Gorge Bridge Safety Network after losing her son to suicide at the bridge in 2014. Her network connects individuals who may be experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide. Her organization is a major proponent of making the Gorge Bridge a safer place. Call (505) 660-1474 or visit gorgebridgesafetynetwork.org.
  • Inside Out Recovery: As a peer support organization, Inside Out seeks to assist individuals and families seeking recovery from alcohol or substance abuse. Meetings are held weekly at 108 Kit Carson Road, Unit C, in Taos. Call (505) 367-3500 or visit recoveryinsideout.org.
  • Las Cumbres: Las Cumbres began in 1970 by providing individuals with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities with “habilitation” services. The program has since added a preschool for children, as well as a wider range of services for children and adults, that include mental health services, emotional or developmental therapies and residential, employment and community integration support. Visit lascumbres-nm.org.
  • Taos Pueblo Wellness & Recovery Program: An intensive outpatient recovery program, it offers alcohol and substance abuse rehabilitation services to pueblo tribal members, with a specific emphasis on those who have been convicted of crimes and are seeking to re-enter their communities. Call (575) 758-1028 or visit lokt.com.
  • Tri-County Community Services: Executive Director Sue Mulvaney and her staff of clinical professionals operate Tri-County as a local treatment and counseling center for behavioral health and substance abuse specializing in adults. Call (575) 758-5857 or visit tccsnm.org.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call (800) 273-8255.

How to recognize the signs

Mental health professionals say each individual and situation is unique. While identifying signs of depression or a potential suicide can be valuable, no list is comprehensive and some people might not show recognizable signs at all. Professionals and those who suffer from mental illness or are suicidal say that listening to a person without seeking to “fix,” or provide a solution, is one of the most important ways to help.

The following list was compiled based on discussions with mental health professionals working in the Taos community.

Signs of depression or suicidal behavior

  • Loss or recent trauma leading to changes in behavior.
  • Long-lasting sadness, mood swings or unexpected rage.
  • Withdrawal or choosing to be alone for long periods.
  • Sleep problems (sleeping too much or too little).
  • A sudden calm after a period of depression.
  • Slowed movement or speech.
  • Making preparations or putting personal business in order.
  • Dangerous or self-harmful behavior.

Training resources

Breaking the Silence New Mexico

As a core project of Compassionate Touch Network – a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that promotes “community health and social advocacy through education” – Breaking the Silence New Mexico seeks to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness through a specialized curriculum.

This fall, the organization hosted its first course here in Taos. The next training will be held in Albuquerque Jan. 28, 2017.

Email training.breakingthesilence.nm@gmail.com or call (505) 577-7840.

Mental Health First Aid

Similar to traditional first aid, Mental Health First Aid does not train participants in how to treat or diagnose mental health or substance abuse conditions; rather, an eight-hour curriculum instructs in how to identify signs that another individual may be in distress and offer initial support that may lead to professional treatment.

Training can be scheduled at mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

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