Retired Navy chief Lou-Ann Ellingson, 53, is an advocate for a cause she never wanted to be associated with. She lost her husband, David, to suicide in 2008.
Both Lou-Ann and her husband, an active duty master chief, were professionals and knew the signs of depression. “But because it was in my own house, I didn’t recognize it,” Lou-Ann said She saw changes in her husband’s behavior, which she attributed to work, stress, and day-to-day life. “I didn’t put the pieces together until after he was gone.”
Chris Gilchrist is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Chesapeake and a member of the American Association of Suicidology, which very conservatively estimates U.S. suicides at 38,000 a year. Most deaths occur without a note. According to research, 90 percent of those who take their own lives are suffering from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, such as depression, which is the number one cause of suicide.
Suicide has recently moved up to the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), someone dies by suicide every 13 minutes, and an attempt is made every minute of every day. Each loss leaves behind loved ones. These “survivors” need help dealing with the trauma’s aftermath. Survivors have a five times greater risk of suicide themselves, Chris said.
After Lou-Ann’s husband died, she headed to a bookstore and grabbed everything she could about suicide, depression, and grief. “I was trying to self-preserve, self-counsel,” she said. Then, a Navy chaplain told her about a support group, The Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group (S.O.S.), which gave her a life preserver to cling to for the next couple years. “I started going to the meetings and realized it was therapeutic to talk to and be around people who had been through the same experience,” she explained.
Chris started the Portsmouth group more than 26 years ago; it’s Virginia’s longest running S.O.S. group. Chris said the group’s goal is to bring survivors together, to help each other develop a healthy understanding of their losses, and to provide a safe place to share their feelings. It’s support for those left behind. It’s also a free community service sponsored by Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center.
S.O.S. is the main local sponsor for the Out of the Darkness community walk held annually at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach. AFSP is the national sponsor. The ninth walk to promote good mental health is scheduled for Saturday, September 6, at 8:30 a.m., during National Suicide Prevention Week. There were more than 300 U.S. walks last year. The mission is to bring the treatable disease of depression and the tragedy of suicide out of the darkness and into the light.
Within six months of her husband’s death, Lou-Ann started speaking publically about the trauma, its aftermath, and suicide prevention. And she hasn’t stopped. Lou-Ann was one of the speakers for the 2012 walk and will speak again this year. Before the first anniversary of David’s death, she participated in her first walk. She’s watched it grow from about 800 people to last year’s 4,500—the nation’s largest (for the 5th year).
Now an office manager at Edward Jones in Chesapeake, Lou-Ann said that God has guided her healing. He led her to take a year off from her paid job in 2010 to do pro bono work for the Navy. She became an integral part of their suicide prevention training program. She said it helped her cope with the grief.
Wherever she speaks, a line forms afterwards with people who want to express how much the sharing of her experiences has helped them. Some want to rush home, hug their spouses, and watch for signs of depression with more educated eyes. Others are senior officers who said that she had described their signs of depression. “That’s why we do it,” Lou-Ann said, firmly. “We want to save lives.”
Having all military branches involved in better suicide prevention training has helped the walk grow, Lou-Ann said. Chris said there’s even been a walk on an aircraft carrier.
The walk helps promote the awareness that depression is a disease, not mind over matter, Lou-Ann said. Medical help is needed. “In my case, my husband was so strong that he probably thought the inner struggles were a weakness, so how could he share that weakness with anyone?” Lou-Ann said.
When someone has severe depression, the brain isn’t healthy. It can’t do its job and one’s perception of reality is altered, Chris said. These people are in despair and think that they will never get better. “More than one-third of those who take their own life have a substance abuse component,” she said. “They’re not very prepared for what’s happening and counseling can help.” At the walk, 20 licensed counselors will be available to speak with.
Suicide is so sudden and leaves behind many questions. Survivors may feel very intense emotions of anger, guilt, and isolation. S.O.S. lets you know that there are others who truly understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. “What you’re experiencing may feel to you as if you’re going crazy,” Chris explained. “You may learn from the group that what you’re actually feeling may be the norm for someone who has suffered such a profound loss, trauma, and tragedy. There is help and hope.”
The walk is for anyone touched by depression or suicide. “Together,” Chris said, “we can raise awareness of the treatable disease of depression, prevent the tragedy of suicide, and remember loved ones lost.” Any funds raised for the walk go to research, education and treatment plans.
“I know that if we just educate one person at a time about the signs of depression, we’re going to save lives.” Lou-Ann said.
S.O.S. meetings are held every third Wednesday from 7-9 p.m. at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, 4811 High Street West in Portsmouth. Contact Chris Gilchrist for more information: 757-483-5111.
To register for the Out of the Darkness walk, go to www.sos-walk.org or call 888-333-AFSP (2377).