By Eli Simmons, Contributor
At 6:00 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 8, Furman students packed into Watkins Room at the Trone Student Center, lining the chairs and searching for space on the floor in the back of the room. The occasion? A Cultural Life Program event titled “Taking a Step Back from the Edge: A Talk about Suicide Prevention.” The CLP was sponsored by the student health organization, PHOKUS, which stands for “Promoting Healthy Options Through Knowledge, Understanding and Service.”
The CLP event Tuesday was one event in a weeklong series on mental health awareness Monday Nov. 7 through Friday Nov. 11. The series took place after three “threats of suicide” were reported to the Furman police department Monday Oct. 31 and Sunday Nov. 6, though the weeklong series was planned in advance of the recent suicide warnings.
Dr. Sarah Hinton, the Earle Infirmary’s attending physician, and Dennis Gillan, a motivational speaker and mental-health advocate, would soon take the stage for the event.
Dr. Hinton began the event by presenting some “not-so-fun facts” about suicide and mental illness among adolescents. According to Hinton, for the last 25 years, suicide has been the third leading cause of death among American adolescents. Also, suicide claims 117 lives a day on average and, for every single adolescent suicide, it is estimated that 25 other adolescents self-harm.
Hinton instructed the audience to be aware of the potential signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior in friends and family members, such as mood swings, severe and sudden substance abuse or a prolonged and extreme depressive state. “If you’re worried about somebody, say something,” Hinton said.“Do something about it.”
Following Hinton’s short presentation, Dennis Gillan took the stage to share his story — one of tragedy and struggle, but also of victory and hope. Gillan lost both of his brothers to suicide, his older brother while he was in college, his younger brother 11 years later. Following the death of his older brother, Hinton turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, a decision he said he strongly regrets. Hinton jested that he would not tell a room full of college students not to drink, but Gillan stated simply, “If you’re going through an obstacle, go through it sober.”
Gillan told his story with tears in his eyes, but with the tone of one not easily conquered by circumstance. He encouraged those struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts to seek counseling, something he wishes he would have done sooner.
“If you swallow your problems, your stomach will keep score,” Gillan said, “and usually it will come out in unhealthy ways.”
Gillan proudly sees a counselor to this day, and reminded the audience that doing so is not something to be ashamed of.
Dr. Hinton and Dennis Gillan shared a unified message: we are all struggling, we all need help, and we need to help one another rise above the temptation towards despair.
Emily Sandlin, a junior health sciences major at Furman and the co-president of PHOKUS, also spoke at the event.
“Know that you’re not alone. You think you are the only one when it’s affecting you, but everybody’s affected, at least at one point,” she said.