Ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide in South Carolina

Ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Dennis Gillan remembers a time when he didn't talk about his brothers, Mark and Matthew.

"What happened to me was really bad and I don't want it to happen to somebody else," he said.

His older brother Mark died by suicide in the early 1980s. Gillan said that experience was very painful for him and his younger brother. They both drank heavily following Mark's death.

"We didn't talk about it,’ Gillan said. “We didn't talk about a topic like this. I swear because we didn't we talk about Mark, it cost us Matthew."

A little more than a decade after Mark's death, Matthew also died by suicide. Gillan said he wishes some of the resources we have today were around then.

After the death of his older and younger brothers, Gillan sought mental health counseling.

He also began volunteering for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline anonymously when he was living in Chicago. He said he never really mentioned to anyone what happened to his two brothers.

One day, Gillan shared his story. He talked about Mark and Matthew.

Gillan is now a mental health advocate working to reduce the stigma around mental illness and suicide.

This is something the South Carolina Suicide Prevention Coalition is hoping to accomplish. The coalition, which was relaunched in 2016, is also committed to reducing the suicide rate in South Carolina by 20% by 2025.

"There's lots more folks in the community who have been trained to talk to people," Dr. Robert Breen, a psychiatrist with the University of South Carolina's School of Medicine and a member of the coalition said.

According to the Office of Suicide Prevention, about 14,000 South Carolinians have gone through some form of suicide training. South Carolina's suicide rate is higher than the national average and, according to health officials, is the 10th leading cause of death.

Dr. Breen said for the coalition to reach the goal it's going to take a few things.

"It's going to take more training police, fireman, paramedics, and doctors, educators in school,’ he said. “It's going to take reducing stigma."

There is some encouraging data. There was a 3% decrease in the number of suicide attempts from 2016 to 2018 for adults over 25.

The coalition is made up of several different agencies and organizations working together. They eventually want South Carolina to have zero suicides per year. One death is far too much, they said.

Gillan said he will never stop talking about his brothers until there are no more suicides in the state.

"We've reached that tipping point where we're saying we're not going to put this in the closet and not talk about this stuff. We're talking about mental health. It's just as important as our physical health," Gillan said.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text TALK to 741741

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