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Constance Alexander: Suicide is a timeless topic with a sad history and one that remains stigmatized

The telegram from Cincinnati said, “Come at once. Fannie is dead.” With just six words, the Helm family of Junction City was swept into a maelstrom triggered by suicide.

Davis Family members, including Roy Sr., bottom row, center. (Poster design by Andrew John Davis)

Fannie Helm Davis Miller, mother of four boys, had already brought shame on the Helm family with her divorce from Rollie Davis. Although reasons for the split included protecting herself and her family from her husband, a violent drunk, divorce held a whiff of scandal and blame in 1908.

Rollie’s history of abuse was so flagrant, the judge presiding over the divorce banished him from Boyle County. After the papers were signed, the three older boys lived on the Davis Family farm in Perryville, while the youngest, Roy, lived with his mother, grandfather, and Aunt Jennie in Junction City.

Then Fannie married Edgar Miller, thirteen years her junior. More scandal ensued. Disowned by her family, she fled to Cincinnati with her new husband and her four-year-old. Her new husband, as documented in family letters, was just as violent as Rollie. When Fannie could cope no longer, she sent her boy outside to play and smothered herself with a handkerchief soaked in chloroform.

The Helms could not abandon the little boy. Jennie boarded a train and brought him back to Junction City. After Jennie married Billy Dinwiddie, she brought up her own child, Martha, with Roy. He became Roy Davis Sr. when my husband, Roy B. Davis Jr., was born in 1939.

Image depicting suicide as demonic activity (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The specter of suicide hovered over the elder Davis. Shame and survivor trauma stayed with him until he died in 1976. Throughout his lifetime, he never spoke to his own family about the tragedies, but the impact reverberated across generations.

And so it goes even today with suicide. In many situations, the topic is still untouchable, suffused with shame, blame and guilt.

The history of avoidance dates far back into history. For centuries, those who died by their own hand were denied consecrated ground and buried at crossroads, the symbolic location for burial of “lost souls,” condemned to a state of eternal purgatory. Sometimes a stake was used to pierce the body before burial.

In the U.S. today, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 – 24. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that nearly 20% of high school students admit to serious thoughts of suicide and 9% have attempted to take their own lives. Additional important information from NAMI is:

• 79% of all people who die by suicide are male.

• Although more women than men attempt suicide, men are 4x more likely to die by suicide.

• Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14, the 3rd leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 in the U.S and the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.

• 46% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition — but research suggests that 90% may have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

The Mayo Clinic provides information about what parents need to know about teen suicide, but as difficult as that topic, even more disturbing is information from the National Institutes of Health that has found that young children gain an understanding about and suicide from TV or other media. “It is quite likely,” the report explains, the 136 reported suicides from 2001 to 2021 among 5- to 9-year-olds were an undercount.”

The National Rural Health Association, has identified barriers to mental health and services available in rural communities:

Accessibility – Rural residents often travel long distances to receive services, are less likely to be insured for mental health services, and providers are less likely to recognize a mental illness.

Availability – Chronic shortages of mental health professionals exist; mental health providers are more likely to practice in urban centers.

Affordability – Some rural residents may not be able to afford the cost of health insurance or out-of-pocket costs if they lack health insurance.

Acceptability – Rural residents may be more susceptible to the stigma of needing or receiving mental healthcare in small communities where everyone knows each other and fewer choices of trained professionals can lead to a lack of faith in confidentiality, as well as a reliance on the informal care of family members, close friends, and religious leaders.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and rural communities like ours face challenges not only associated with suicide but also with mental health resources in general.

The app, Better Help, is an online resource, and Bridges Family Center in Murray provides a range of mental health services for all ages, through individual and group sessions. Emerald Therapy Center, a regional outfit, has offices in Murray, Paducah, Mayfield.

If you have insights and/or resources to share, please contact the columnist at constancealexander@twc.com.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free and confidential.

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