“Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

“Are you thinking about suicide?”

At one point during a suicide prevention workshop at St. James Episcopal Church on Monday night, Nov. 4, each member of the audience was asked to turn to someone sitting nearby and ask them that question.

The point of the exercise was to make people more comfortable with discussing what is, for many people, a very uncomfortable topic.

Moderated by Marvin Gorsky and Emily Zelner of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, the forum was held to help people recognize when someone in their lives, whether it is a family member, friend or co-worker, is having a crisis or may be having suicidal thoughts.

About 30 people were in attendance, including nursing students from Seton Hall University, clergy, support group leaders and residents.

On average, someone dies by suicide in the United States every 12 minutes, and an average of 123 Americans die by suicide every day, or 44,965 people every year. Suicide has been documented as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death among children and teens ages 10 to 18. Between 2007 and 2017, suicides among youth between the ages of 10 and 24 went up by 56 percent nationwide. “So we’ve definitely seen a rise in suicides, especially among young people,” Zelner said.

Locally, Montclair has entered into a suicide prevention partnership with the school district, the Mental Health Association and Mountainside Hospital. The Mental Health Association has also conducted training sessions in the schools with teachers and support staff on how to recognize when a student may be in crisis.

“Everyone’s telling me, there seems to be a lot more stress in just living,” Gorsky said.

There is a lack of support structures for people going through a hard time. “And maybe not enough warmth, and hugs, and faith and friends around to counter some of that stress,” he said.

The presentation included a list of behaviors that may be warning signs of suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to die, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live.
  • Talking about being a burden to others, feeling trapped.
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Having abnormal preoccupation with violence or death.
  • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye, giving away possessions.
  • Having an organized plan.
  • Gathering the necessary means to carry out their plan.
  • Neglect of hygiene and sudden change in personal appearance.
  • Sudden calm demeanor, immediate resolution of problems.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.
  • Withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Changes in eating habits and/or sleeping too much or too little.

If there is an item that may be a means of harm, such as pills or a firearm, on the premises, those items need to be secured or removed. In the case of a firearm, it needs to be removed from the premises altogether, along with the bullets, Gorsky said.

Empathy is one of the most important things someone can demonstrate for someone who is in crisis, Gorsky and Zelner said. One should never say things to a person in crisis like ‘you’re crazy’ or ask them what their parents would think. Instead, they said, someone should tell the person that they want to help, they feel bad for them, and that they are loved.

The role of social media and bullying, and its role in suicide, was a topic discussed, including a recent case in which a young man died by suicide after his girlfriend allegedly sent him numerous text messages urging him to kill himself. Alexander Urtula, 21, of Cedar Grove, formerly from Upper Montclair, died by suicide in Boston the day he was scheduled to graduate from Boston College. Authorities say that his girlfriend, Inyoung You, sent him multiple text messages, as many as 47,000, urging him to kill himself.

Zelner recounted one instance in which a mother accompanied her daughter to the emergency room for a psychological evaluation. While in the emergency room, the mother threw her daughter’s phone clear across the room. For the mother, Zelner said, the phone was perpetuated the bullying and harassment her daughter endured.

New Jersey has a shortage of child psychologists who are trained to work with children who have depression. And seeing a psychologist can be prohibitively expensive, even with health insurance, Gorsky said.

Rev. Audrey Hasselbrook, the assistant rector for St. James, said after hearing Gorsky speak at the diocesan convention earlier in the year on the subject of mental health, the church decided to host its own event.

“We knew we needed to do something larger for the community,” Hasselbrook said.

Nikisha Turner, a chaplain at Morristown Medical Center, said emergency rooms are seeing children come in at much younger ages with mental health issues, with some as young as seven. Social media, which opens up an avenue for bullying, is a contributing factor, she said. Even in childhood, children can and do face very stressful situations. She approves of the legislation that now requires mental health education in schools.

Grace Episcopal Church in Nutley recently hosted a Mental Health 101 session, and its annual blessing of the motorcycles raise funds for suicide awareness and prevention.

“If everybody who came here could save one person’s life, that would be absolutely life changing,” said Rev. Pamela Bakal, the rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

The 30 people in the audience, she said, could potentially help 30 people in crisis.