ROCHELLE — Since May, Stephanie White of Rochelle has been working as an advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
White’s father, Steven, passed away in February due to suicide. After that, she felt it's important that communities come together to educate everyone on mental health and end suicide. Her work as an advocate has included helping to urge public officials to prioritize suicide prevention and mental health.
“It’s really helped with my grief process,” White said. “It’s been something that’s been an outlet for me and you feel like you’re making a difference. I heard once that, ‘Grief is hard to navigate, but it's hard to be sad when you're helping someone else.’ Just staying active to try to help other people has helped me feel better.”
After her father’s passing, White’s family did research and chose the AFSP as the organization that friends and family could make donations to during his memorial service. Funds donated to the AFSP go directly to scientific research and helping families impacted by suicide loss.
After signing up to be an advocate, White was tasked with reaching out to legislators. She’s written many letters and emails to representatives asking for their help and consideration and what they’re doing for suicide prevention and mental health advocacy.
The main focus of the advocacy has been getting the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline started to make mental health emergencies easier to call in and for people in crisis to be able to talk to a trained mental health professional.
The now-simplified 988 service (previously 1-800-273-8255) is an alternative to 911 and connects callers to Lifeline centers. Those centers de-escalate 98 percent of crisis calls without dispatching emergency services. Well-resourced crisis support systems can connect callers with local resources, including someone to talk to (call centers), someone to respond (mobile crisis teams) and somewhere to go (crisis stabilization centers).
White is currently advocating for HR 7116, the 988 Implementation Act, which would provide federal funding and guidance for states for 988 crisis services in the United States.
“It was very important to have a number for mental health crises that can be called to talk to someone that's educated and specializes in de-escalating those types of situations,” White said. “It’s a quick dial and now awareness about it has to be raised so people know to call and advocating has to be done to get the funds to get the appropriate people in place that can continue taking those calls and de-escalating mental health situations of people who are having suicidal thoughts or anxiety attacks that they can't get under control.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. White wants to break the stigma surrounding suicide and for mental health issues to stop being seen as a weakness. She hopes being an advocate can help to encourage people to get the help they really need.
“I think with any type of mental health, people are scared to talk about it,” White said. “Talking and being more open about suicide or all types of mental health can let others know it’s OK to talk about it and it's not just them feeling it. Everybody has some sort of struggle or knows somebody that struggles with mental health. Having people feel more comfortable talking about it, I hope that helps them to reach out if they do need help.”
Along with scientific research and advocacy, the AFSP does community walks and raises funds for suicide prevention. White plans to participate in those walks this month and to wear shirts to raise awareness.
The AFSP acts as a support system for people who have been impacted by the suicide of a loved one. White believes her next step is to try to share her personal journey.
“I'd like to not only help get the funding and awareness raised for suicide prevention, but maybe transition to helping other families that have dealt with suicide loss,” White said. “That’s my next goal.”
White called her father “a kind and loving man.” He loved tinkering with things, was a welder and was “very artistic.” He had all sorts of hobbies, including gardening and fishing. He was an involved grandfather to Stephanie’s three children and was at every sporting event and dance recital.
“He was recently retired and picked up a lot of hobbies and just had a lot of downtime,” White said. “On top of being such a happy and wonderful man, he was also struggling with depression and was able to hide it for 10 years.”
White said it’s easy to overwhelmed by the sad and traumatic parts of losing a loved one to suicide. She doesn’t want those to be the things that are remembered about her father.
“He was a kind and generous man,” White said. “I feel like helping other people and trying to make an impact in some way is something he'd want me to do and it makes me feel closer to him. That I can turn something traumatic into something positive to try to help somebody else. Like I said, it's hard to be sad when you’re helping someone else.”
For more information on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, visit afsp.org/988. If you’re in a crisis, call or text 988 or text TALK to 741741.