Never, ever did LaShawn Lewis Mills think it could happen to someone in her family. Her daughter Tyler Lewis was caring, loving and so strong. Now, looking back, she says it was a façade and a few of the signs were there.
It was on Feb. 26, 2013, that Mills’ life changed forever. Lewis, just weeks after having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and not being able to get medical assistance, called her sister to tell her that she was going to kill herself. Her sister then called Mills. Mills rushed to her daughter, but it was too late. Her 23-year-old daughter had taken her life.
“She (Tyler) was a strong person on the outside; I never, ever thought that she was hurting so bad on the inside. No one ever would have noticed it. She hid it very well. It’s always been LaShawn and her three kids, through everything. We’ve done everything together; even when they got grown we still did everything together. And ever since Tyler has been gone our family circle hasn’t been the same,” Mills said
Now, months after getting over the pain of her loss and the stigma that comes with suicide, Mills has found the strength to bring awareness to an issue that many in the Black community try not to discuss. She is spreading the word, so that others do not have to suffer the same loss.
On Aug. 9, Mills, along with other friends and family of Lewis, held the first ever There Is Hope Suicide Prevention Picnic at Mellon Park to honor their loved one’s memory, bring awareness and raise funds for the nonprofit organization they’re trying to establish.
“It went wonderful. I was very pleased with the turnout and I couldn’t ask for it to be any better. Tyler would have been so pleased. I know in my heart that she was smiling,” Mills said.
The day’s festivities included a basketball tournament because Lewis had a love for the game and played on her local high school team; a motorcycle and car cruise sponsored by Coston Funeral Home Inc.; activities for kids; crisis information from Mercy Behavioral Health and re:solve Crisis Network; counselors; and more. There was also a special presentation of a proclamation from state Rep. Ed Gainey.
Roland J. Coston Criswell, of Coston Funeral Home, said he partnered with Mills not only because she works with him, but because he recognizes the importance of spreading the awareness.
“(The) mental health issue is a trait in our community that we don’t talk about and I think a lot of mental health leads to suicide… I think people need to have that awareness that it’s in our community and it’s okay to talk about it.”
In the Black community, suicide has a stigma of being dishonorable and is something most don’t even talk about. Many think, like Mills once did, that it will never happen to them.
While suicide does affect other ethnicities at a greater rate, the statistics among the African-American are still disheartening. According to the American Association of Suicidology, in 2010, 2,144 African-Americans committed suicide in the United States, of those individuals, 81.8 percent were males; suicide was the third leading cause of death among African-American youth ages 10-19, after homicides and accidents; and from 1993-2002, the rate of suicide in African-Americans showed a small, yet steady decline and that since 2002, the rate has remained roughly the same.
“When it first happened with my daughter I was ashamed as well. I didn’t want to talk about it, then one day, and I know it was (Tyler) and God, they came and said, ‘you gotta shake this, you gotta bring awareness.’ Instead of being part of the people not talking about it, and being embarrassed and ashamed about it, I want to be the one that has a voice,” Mills said.
She said her organization will help to reduce the stigma associated with suicide, depression and mental disorders, while bringing awareness to the signs and symptoms.
There are all kinds of triggers for suicidal thoughts-mental health is a large contributor. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reported that poverty level can affect one’s mental health status. According to them, African-Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress.
Lorraine Mungo, Lewis’ grandmother, said she thinks Lewis committed suicide because she was disgusted with her life. She had been seeking employment, but could not find a job; and because she was young and single, she couldn’t get assistance or the medical attention she needed.
“And I find it so disgusting. It was a cry for help and she couldn’t get the help she needed. I think it was a combination of a feeling that everything was working against her.”
According the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website, www.save.org, some of the signs that someone is at risk of suicide include talking about wanting to die; talking about feeling hopeless; increasing the use of alcohol or drugs; being withdrawn or isolated; visiting or calling people to say goodbye; making arrangements, setting one’s affairs in order; and giving things away, just to name a few.
Mills said looking back, there were warning signs. She said, the day prior to the incident, Lewis called and asked if she could bring her clothes over to her house and if she could call the cable company for her.
“I was still thinking she’s doing this because she’s angry. Never did I imagine she’s calling and asking me to do these things for her because she didn’t want to be here anymore. She was so strong, now looking back I see it was a cover up.”
Mungo said people do not realize what they put their family members through when they take their own life.
“If they would only stop and think; if they wait another hour, another half an hour, or another day, things will look different than they did at that particular point and time,” she said. “I just regret that Tyler did not wait. But by having this event in her memory, possibly we may be able to save other people.”
Mills said since opening up about her story, she has come in contact with so many individuals who have dealt with suicide in one way or another.
At the picnic, she said a woman came up to her because she was concerned that her daughter was having suicidal thoughts. Mills led the woman to a crisis counselor where she was able to get helpful tips.
She said she plans to make the picnic an annual event and would like to partner with other community events to spread the word.
“We want There Is Hope to have a voice and let people know that there is hope, that they don’t have to commit suicide and there are resources available,” Mills said. “If I save one person’s life, my daughter’s death was not in vain.”
(For more information on There Is Hope, call 412-969-7354.)
(J.L. Martello contributed to this story.)
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