March 25–Like many young couples, Sandy Koloski McHenry and Christopher McHenry bought a home. They talked about starting a family. They looked toward a future.
But then Christopher McHenry killed himself.
Sandy Koloski McHenry, of Sneads Ferry, said she was mentally more prepared for the possibility of something happening to her husband while he was deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, but she’d never considered something happening to him at his own hand.
The number of people who have committed suicide in Onslow County has decreased since 2012. However, suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for Onslow County’s younger generations. From 2010 to 2014 there were 62 people inOnslow County age 30 and younger who died from “intentional self-harm,” according to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics.
It gets personal
Many aspects of suicide remain unclear and McHenry believes not talking about it is part of the problem.
“Nobody talks about (suicide),” she said.
Her husband was a lance corporal with the U.S. when he committed suicide in March at the age of 24 while he was deployed in Okinawa, Japan. Christopher McHenry, who went by “Chris,” had sought help through therapists on base and in Jacksonville but was unable to continue working with a therapist after being deployed on his third tour.
“He was a good actor,” McHenry said. “When he went to work, he was awesome at his job. He was well-known. It was a shock to everyone when this happened.”
During the four weeks Chris was deployed he spoke with his wife two-to-three times per day. Looking back now, McHenry said his pain was written in his eyes and on his face, his struggle was bare, but she never thought he would take his own life.
“The pain has ended for them, but it’s passed on to the ones that are left behind,” McHenry said.
When people complain about “little things,” McHenry said she hates it. It just doesn’t compare to how bad it could be.
“It’s been a struggle for me to move forward, but I do. I have to live,” McHenry said.
The way she does that now is by spreading awareness and sharing Chris’ story with others.
“I am my husband’s voice,” McHenry said.
The task force
The Onslow County Partnership for Children, along with numerous other city and county organizations, are another voice. A task force is working to reduce the number of Onslow County suicides to zero, according to the task force’s facilitator, Dawn Rochelle.
– “Our whole focus is suicide prevention,” Rochelle said. “We have to think it is possible to have zero suicides. It is 100-percent preventable.”
People discuss deaths resulting from car accidents, for example, but not suicide, Rochelle said.
“We are a society that struggles with pushing past the point of frustration without falling apart,” she added. “Many times in society now, we don’t know how to put ourselves back together.”
The task force — which doesn’t have an official name but is referred to as the suicide prevention task force — was announced at the Partnership for Children’s 2015 State of the Child event.
Rochelle said the organizations that created the task force realized that there’s a lot of data on mental health and mental illness in Onslow County but it hasn’t been collected for the community to put to use.
“It’s hard when you’re trying to get a handle on trends … when the data’s not apples to apples,” Rochelle said.
CIT, or Crisis Intervention Training, was reinstated to be used by law enforcement and first responders. The hope of the task force is to use CIT to divert those who need mental health help to people who can best offer assistance rather than taking them to jail or emergency rooms.
“When people are showing up at the ER, it’s a huge burden on the ER and it’s a huge burden on law enforcement when you’re really needing mental health identification and services,” Rochelle said.
The training involves a 40-hour course for volunteers and Rochelle said three groups graduated during the first year of implementation.
“I’m real proud of what we’ve been able to do,” Rochelle said.
The next step
It’s clear that there’s no natural leader for mental health services in Onslow County, Rochelle said.
“We have a huge shortage of therapists,” she said. “There is only one therapist for every 545 citizens.”
In addition to figuring out the best way to bring more therapists to the area, Rochelle said the task force will focus on finding or creating a point place or point person for community members to turn to during a crisis. That means also figuring out a system for those in need, including how they’d pay for services and where someone can receive help if they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Rochelle said the 2016 State of the Child keynote speaker emphasized that mental health is brain health. Just like a kidney or the liver, the brain is an organ that needs care the same as other parts of the body; yet society views mental health as something a person can be blamed for, like substance abuse.
– “There is no magic answer,” Rochelle said.
Suicide in Onslow County is something the community needs to address.
“Suicide needs to be talked about,” said Sheriff Hans Miller with the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office. “If we’re open about it, hopefully we will encourage those in psychological pain to reach out and get some treatment.”
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