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Social media, guns and hopelessness: A South Florida conference looks at suicide awareness

Dr. Frank J. Zenere is a School Psychologist, District Coordinator, Office of Mental Health and Student Services, Miami Dade County Public Schools. He was part of the Voices of Youth, Families and Schools panel at the conference. Photo Credit - NAMI Miami-Dade. He will be back again this year.
NAMI Miami-Dade
Dr. Frank J. Zenere is a school psychologist and the District Coordinator at the Office of Mental Health and Student Services in Miami Dade County Public Schools. He was a speaker at last year's conference and will be back again this year.

Susan Holtzman said she remained silent for years after her 32-year-old sister committed suicide.

“I was ashamed to mention that this had happened in my family,” Holtzman told WLRN.

Today, Holtzman is the CEO and president of the Miami-Dade Chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).

She told WLRN that her involvement with NAMI, joining a grief support group and speaking openly about the family’s loss of a loved one allowed her to survive the tragedy that happened 30 years ago.

Holtzman shared the story with WLRN to promote the theme of this year’s second annual South Florida Suicide Awareness Conference on Saturday, April 20, on the University of Miami campus. It’s titled “Honest Talk About Suicide and A Message of Hope.”

“We're going to be talking about how people can have fleeting thoughts of suicide” and "how to survive the death of a loved one by suicide," said Holtzman.

Suicide rates have risen dramatically over the past two decades in the United States.

In 2022 alone, about 49,500 people took their own lives according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that is the highest number ever recorded, and represents a 36% increase from 2000.

The conference will feature local and national experts who will share trends, statistics and triggers of suicidal ideations. They will also discuss which communities are mostly impacted and what resources are available.

Dennis Gillan is the founder of Half a Sorrow Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting conversations about mental health.
Dennis Gillan
Dennis Gillan is the founder of Half a Sorrow Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting conversations about mental health.

This year’s keynote speaker is Dennis Gillan. He became an advocate for suicide prevention and mental health advocacy after losing two brothers to suicide. In 2020, he founded Half a Sorrow Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on promoting conversations about mental health.

"We're going to be talking about how people can have fleeting thoughts of suicide. They can have persistent thoughts of suicide, they can act on suicide, they can survive and they can survive the death of a loved one by suicide. And there is hope and there is life afterwards," said Susan Holtzman, the CEO and president of NAMI Miami-Dade.

READ MORE: Where to find mental health and trauma support in South Florida

WLRN’s Ammy Sanchez spoke with Holtzman about the conference and suicide awareness, and how she coped with her sister's suicide death. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: How do you explain this troubling rise in suicide rates over the past two decades?

HOLTZMAN: When you talk about youth, we point to issues of hopelessness, of the impact of social media, and coming up, living and growing up in a world where you are constantly compared to other people. When we talk about older adults, there's very little research on this because the data is brand new on that. It's more of an issue again, it seems to be — and this is anecdotal because the research hasn't been done — around hopelessness, diminished ability, diminished quality of life and also loneliness [since] many older people have lost their closest friends, spouses, etc. So, those are the things that we look at when we look at these increased numbers.

A top expert at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says one of the main drivers of higher suicide rates among all people is the growing availability of guns. Do you think this is true in South Florida?

We are seeing that especially the suicide deaths among older adults, the weapon of choice is guns. Across the board suicide rates among males are higher, and again, the means of choice is guns. So gun deaths related to suicide are on the increase, and so, yes, there's no question that that's the issue.

What led to the creation of the Suicide Prevention Conference?

Well, what initially led to it was this increase in suicide among younger people and in general. So the philosophy, our guiding principle at NAMI, is to talk about these things that people don't usually talk about, mental illness and suicide are among those. Because if you can openly talk about it, you can reduce the stigma, get other people talking about it — and specifically with suicide, once that comes out in the open, when a person acknowledges that they are thinking about suicide, then there's much more opportunity to intervene and have a successful intervention.

This year's conference is titled “Honest Talk About Suicide and a Message of Hope.” What do you mean when you say 'honest talk'?  

Susan Holtzman is the CEO of NAMI Miami-Dade.
NAMI Miami-Dade
Susan Holtzman is the CEO of NAMI Miami-Dade.

We're going to be talking about suicide, which is a very difficult subject to talk about. For me personally, it's a difficult topic. I lost my younger sister to suicide when she was 32 years old and I didn't talk about it for years. For years, I was ashamed to mention that this had happened in my family. Only my closest friends knew about it.

As I got more involved in mental health advocacy and more involved with NAMI, I realized that my speaking about that openly, number one, gave me great relief. I finally took the time to join a grief support group and really address the issues that I had from a death that took place 30 years ago. And two, it helps other people to openly speak about it, to openly say, 'I lost a family member to suicide,' to be able to speak about that in a setting where there is no stigma attached to it, where it's normalized so that they can openly talk about it. And also where people can say ‘You know, I've had thoughts of suicide at some point in my life,’ which is another thing that people don't want to talk about.

So at the conference, we're going to be doing both of those things. We're going to be talking about how people can have fleeting thoughts of suicide. They can have persistent thoughts of suicide, they can act on suicide, they can survive and they can survive the death of a loved one by suicide. And there is hope and there is life afterwards. And there is hope that, which is the other end of the title of the conference, by talking about it, we can reduce those numbers.

Why else would you say that it's important to have conversations like this?

So people understand the resources that are available. If they're in a situation where they personally are thinking about ending their own lives — and there's a whole spectrum of thoughts that happen there from fleeting thoughts, or maybe thinking ‘I don't want to wake up tomorrow morning’ to actually making a plan to act and acting on it — we're gonna be talking quite a bit about the resources that are available anywhere along that process. So that if you or someone is exhibiting behaviors that may indicate that they're having those thoughts, we're going to give the resources to reach out to. And then, on the other hand, for those of us who have experienced suicide of loved ones, we're going to have resources to help [us] understand… our feelings and our reactions and how we can go on to live a fulfilling life filled with joy after a terrible situation like that.

The free conference will be held on April 20 from 9 a.m.–12 p.m. at the University of Miami' s Newman Alumni Center, 6200 San Amaro Drive, Coral Gables, 33146. You can register for the half-day conference here.

For those who need support, the NAMI Helpline is 305-665-2540, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 988.

Ammy Sanchez, the Morning Edition producer for WLRN, studies communications at the Honors College at Florida International University.
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