Suicide Prevention Advocates Hope Lawmakers Hear Their Stories, Pass Upcoming Bill

Jan 19, 2016

Florida State University's Deputy Police Chief Jim Russell speaking last week at a press conference to recognize the 14th Annual Florida Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol.
Credit Florida Channel

A couple of state lawmakers as well as some suicide prevention advocates are hoping to cut down on suicides, mainly among Florida youth.

Jim Russell—Florida State University’s Deputy Police Chief—says he never knew he was depressed, even though the signs were there.

“I lived probably starting in my teenage years up through now having depression,” he said. “I didn’t know early in my life that I had depression. I wasn’t educated about it. I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know what the impacts of it were. I knew that it was manifesting itself. I would express myself through art….and those paintings were very dark, in a lot of ways…twisted figures and pain.”

He says it also manifested in different parts of his life: college, police academy, marriage, and when he had a child. And, Russell adds as life went on, it got worse as it went untreated.

“My child at the time was three years old, and I said, ‘you know what? He’d be better off without me. He’ll forget me,’” he said. “At the same time, my first marriage started to fall apart. Now, depression didn’t help that. It wasn’t the cause of it, but it didn’t help. And, I started going to a much deeper place. I started to contemplate how I was going to do it, and where and all this other stuff. I still didn’t know I had depression. I just knew that it was happening to me.”

Russell says what really prompted him to take that personal look inside were the suicide deaths of two FSU students in a three week period. So, he wanted to put together a suicide prevention program through his police department, after finding out suicides are the number two killer of college students. Russell then enlisted the help of an on-campus professor, known for suicide prevention expertise.

“And, he said, ‘you know, it’s kind of like heart disease.’ He said, ‘if someone has heart disease, or something else going on, they see manifestations and they see symptoms, and they go to the doctor. They get treated. But, it’s different with mental health, and it’s different with suicide is these things happen and they’re silent about it and stigma stops them from going to see a doctor and they don’t know what to do and eventually they die.’ And, as he was describing the symptoms and the things to look for—and he had no idea what my background was. He just knew I was a cop looking for information—I thought ‘oh my God. He’s talking about me,’” he recalled.

Russell says after he went to the doctor—who confirmed his depression—he’s been seeing a therapist and has been on medication ever since.

Rachelle Burns has a similar story about the impact sharing information can have in saving a life. She’s a regional director of Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, who also works at Pensacola State College.

Burns says she knows of one student who volunteered her time as part of an event to talk about depression and suicide to friends and classmates.

“Some of her instructors even let her talk to the other students and she went about her day and she said, ‘it was really fun. I really enjoyed it,’” said Burns. “But, the next day she was walking across campus and a student from one of her classes stopped her and said, ‘Mickey, I want to tell you thank you so much for what you said yesterday. The day you spoke yesterday I was going to go home from school and take my own life. But, what you said really helped me realize that there is hope and I can do something different. I don’t have to go down that path, and there’s help available. So, thank you so much.’”

Both Russell and Burns spoke during last week’s 14th Annual Florida Suicide Prevention Day at the Capitol, in favor of two bills in the House and Senate that builds on prevention efforts.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto’s (R-Fort Myers) bill requires the Florida Department of Education to work with the Statewide Office of Suicide Prevention to develop 2 hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training.

“We can’t solve every problem as it relates to the thoughts that brings someone to depression,” she said. “But, if we do one small thing—and this one small thing can have significant impact on the lives of our children because if our educators are trained to recognize the signs and help intervene, then a life can be saved.”

And, Rep. Dane Eagle (R-Cape Coral) is sponsoring the bill in the House.

“When she came to me and asked me to be her House sponsor, I said, ‘yes, of course.’ This is something near and dear to me. I’ve lost friends to suicide, one as recently as this past Fall,” he said. “So, when I began to study this a little bit further and look at the research, I was just shocked to learn, especially amongst our youth, suicide is the second most leading cause of death and that’s sad. It’s shocking, and the most shocking thing about it is it’s preventable.”

The measure is scheduled for its first Senate hearing Wednesday.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.