Standing Against Suicide 

click to enlarge Indiana native Brittany Mason fights bullying. She also models — on Project Runway, The Face and for Yves Saint Laurent, for example. - BY ALESSANDRA FIORINI
  • Indiana native Brittany Mason fights bullying. She also models — on Project Runway, The Face and for Yves Saint Laurent, for example.
  • By Alessandra Fiorini

From teenagers to military vets, the specter of suicide haunts thousands of Hoosiers. Support for those affected takes many forms.

One of the loveliest forms is Brittany Mason, who as a model and actress has worked with the likes of Project Runway, Naomi Campbell's The Face and Yves Saint Laurent. As a kid growing up in Anderson, Ind., she was bullied to the point of attempting suicide.

"Now people are talking about it because there have been so many suicides and children who have died," said the 2008 Miss Indiana USA in a phone interview from LA Tuesday. "It's sad it takes that to get attention."

"That's why I started competing in pageants. I knew people would listen to me if I had a crown."

Mason said she has worked with more than 100,000 students, educating them about bully prevention and awareness. And though she has traveled to schools all over Indiana, a visit next week marks the first time she has returned home to Anderson to revisit the two hellish years she spent at Anderson High School.

Daily abuse for two years: Her picture posted around school emblazoned with phallic symbols. Literally hosed down in front of the entire school. Car vandalized, destroyed. Parents' car vandalized, destroyed. Death threats. Stalking.

"I had nowhere to turn," Mason said. "I attempted suicide; I failed, thank God.

"In that moment I realized I would try to help other people going through what I was — to give them a voice."

She will offer private student workshops during her visit Oct. 2-3, which will be held in conjunction with homecoming — an event she recalled missing as a student because she was chased away.

Mason will host a fundraising concert at 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at the high school, headlined by pop singer Macy Kate, who, Mason said, works with "Beiber's people and Rhianna's people" and "is so talented it's unbelievable, like the next Christina Aguilera."

Macy Kate's cover of Sara Bareilles Brave is Mason's favorite; she plays it during each student workshop.

The funds from the $5-a-head gig will support an anonymous suicide prevention hotline at Anderson High School. Mason notes that new law mandates each school must have a hotline, but that Anderson did not have the budget to cover the expense of training.

"It's awesome for me to be able to help provide the services," Mason said.

Speaking out also presented the opportunity for Mason, as a successful survivor, to face her primary tormentor, who showed up at one of Mason's speaking engagements and asked Mason out to dinner.

"I never knew; I didn't know: Why am I so awful," Mason said. "She told me everything. She cried and apologized a million times. She said, 'I was jealous. I thought my boyfriend liked you.' I didn't know him."

The apology was genuine and real, which Mason thought spoke well of the girl's character, to have enough depth to ask for forgiveness. The episode ended with a hug. Generally with bullies, Mason said, "they're acting out because something else is going on."

click image Source: Indiana Suicide Prevention Plan
  • Source: Indiana Suicide Prevention Plan

September is suicide prevention month and many examples of outreach and action are evident.

Take, for instance, the Out of the Darkness Walk

More than 1,700 people filled Celebration Park on Sept. 14, Lisa Brattain, the Indiana/Ohio area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, wrote in a recent email exchange.

The 128 teams made up of families of loved ones lost by suicide, mental health providers and community groups such as the Indiana Youth Group, managed to raise more than $130,000 to fund national research and local advocacy, training and survivor support.

"It was amazing to see the community come together for a cause that is so hard to talk about," Brattain wrote. "With depression being the No. 1 cause of suicide, and more than 22 million Americans living with some form of a depressive illness ... this is a conversation we cannot afford to have in a whisper any longer.

"Suicide deaths in Indiana are almost triple the number of homicides in Indiana.There are more than 38,000 deaths by suicide annually in the U.S., with an attempt estimated to occur every 38 seconds."

In addition to the walk, Christian Theological Seminary hosted the Indiana Suicide Prevention Summit on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day.

An estimated 300 people gathered to discuss the state's suicide prevention plan, including two AFSP-sponsored researchers to speak on at-risk LGBT youth and complicated grief.

"One of the key quotes of the day was 'Every suicide is preventable!' by Alice Jordan-Miles from Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne. She works with local suicide prevention councils in all parts of Indiana," said Matthias Beier, an associate professor of pastoral care and CTS Counseling director, in a Sept. 18 email.

"I emphasized in my closing talk: 'Everyone can help prevent suicide, and we are not alone in this effort!' The first step is to learn about facts and resources." [See sidebar for hotline details.]

Summit organizers noted that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Hoosiers between the ages of 15 and 34; and the third-leading cause of death for adolescents aged 10-14.

"Depression is a REAL illness, there is physically something happening within your body when you have a form of depression," Brattain wrote, noting that the mental health issue "affects every aspect of someone's life when they are struggling — their job, their social and family relationships, their physical health, and so much more."

click to enlarge Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis encourages vets to use the mental health services available to them. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis encourages vets to use the mental health services available to them.
  • Rebecca Townsend

The military shoulders heavy exposure to the all-encompassing effects of depression.

Indy's VA Hospital, the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center, located Downtown along the White River, has 50 beds in its mental health unit with an average daily occupancy of 43.

Nationwide, 13 percent of the nation's homeless population is comprised of veterans — approximately half of the nation's homeless vets are mentally ill, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. A January 2013 point-in-time count found 320 homeless vets in Marion County; experts estimate the annual number at three to five times that number.

More and more veterans are coming back from combat zones with head trauma, thanks to countless shellings and improvised explosive devices. Doctors link this type of trauma with depression — often associated with alcohol and drug use abuse, violent behavior and suicide.

The older vets are not immune though. A fact sheet distributed in March by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., noted a February Reuters report that more than 69 percent of veteran suicides were by people aged 50 or older.

He also noted that 2012 had the highest rate of suicide since the Pentagon began close tracking in 2001 and that the 349 active-duty service members who committed suicide in 2012 outnumbered the 229 killed in combat in Afghanistan.

The nation's living Medal of Honor winners have come together to produce a video project encouraging people in need of help to reach out.

"If there's one thing that I can say or do that will help just one of our troops coming home today, it's part of the obligation I feel in my heart," Indiana's Sammy Davis, who won a Medal of Honor for his Army service in Vietnam, said in a video explaining the project. "I want to help the young men and women that are coming home today. I want them to be strong."

The VA's "2012 Suicide Data" report found: "Among cases where history of U.S. military service was reported, veterans comprised approximately 22.2 percent of all suicides reported during the project period. If this prevalence estimate is assumed to be constant across all U.S. states, an estimated 22 veterans will have died from suicide each day in the calendar year 2010."

In a video for distribution to vets Davis says: "The tools are available now — make use of them and don't let the enemy defeat you at home."

Reflecting on how she made it through her toughest times, Mason said, "At the end of the day, no matter what challenges you face, it's all about how you handle yourself."

Over time, she said she has found her challenges to be blessings; she calls her outreach work "a healing process," noting "when I get feedback and know I've helped or encouraged them to come forward, then I know what I'm doing means something — what I went through was for a reason."

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Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend

Rebecca Townsend served as NUVO news editor from May 2011 to August 2014. During a 20-plus year career, her bylines have appeared in publications ranging from Indiana AgriNews to the Wall Street Journal. Her undergraduate degree is in sociology and anthropology from Earlham College, and her master's is in journalism... more

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