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Conference gives voice to 'silent epidemic'


Jody McVeigh Editor
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October 12, 2017
On an average day, during an average week, Gail Urso sits at her desk in the Kevin’s Song office, when she shares some uncommon news:

Three suicides in or tied to Grosse Pointe occurred in one week.

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“It makes you realize how big this problem is and how much work there is to do,” she said.

Urso and her husband, John, started Kevin’s Song shortly after their son committed suicide in 2013, to generate public awareness about the causes of suicide, its prevalence in society and preventive measures. Its debut conference last year was such a positive experience, Urso said, they hope to spread the word even further with this year’s event.

“The Silent Epidemic, A Conference on Suicide, What Do We Know? What Can We Do?” takes place Thursday, Nov. 9, through Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Inn at St. John, Plymouth. The event features myriad speakers and experts who hope to generate awareness about suicide — its causes, prevalence and preventive measures.

“It’s special because we bring together all these resources, experts in the field, organizations working in suicide prevention, loss survivors, attempt survivors, educators,” she said. “They all come together to learn and share information.”

Each day is geared toward a specific audience, though all conference goers are welcome to attend any programming offered. Goals, objectives, speakers and panelists for each day may be found online at kevinssong.org.

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Gail and John Urso formed Kevin's Song after their son's suicide in 2013. Photo courtesy of Gail Urso
Thursday morning is devoted primarily to medical and mental health professionals, Urso said.

Thomas Joiner Ph.D., a top expert in suicidology and author of “Why People Die By Suicide,” speaks about the nature, causes and management of suicidal behavior.

Other speakers Thursday morning include Sagar Parikh M.D., Maria Bastida M.S. and Cynthia Ewell Foster Ph.D., of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program at the University of Michigan Depression Center; and Srijan Sen M.D., Ph.D., of U of M, who speaks about the high rate of suicide among medical students.

Thursday afternoon focuses on educators, with Cheryl King Ph.D., heading a “wonderful breakout session for teachers, counselors and the public,” Urso said. “We’ll also have a Thursday afternoon yoga session and a light supper, then the film ‘The S Word,’ directed by Lisa Klein, who’s from metro Detroit. It’s a new film, quite remarkable. It focuses on attempt survivors to understand what their thinking was.”

Friday morning opens with a focus on veterans, active military and first responders, featuring a keynote address from retired Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol.

“They lost two sons within a seven-month period,” Urso said. “They devote their lives going around the country speaking on suicide prevention.”

A panel on veteran issues features Todd Adkins, director of research and information for the National Rifle Association-Institute for Legislative Action, and representatives from Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

Friday afternoon, suicide in the workplace is discussed. Sally Spencer-Thomas Ph.D., serves as keynote speaker. Jodi Jacobson Frey, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and principal investigator of the Healthy Men Michigan campaign’s research project, also speaks.

“I’m hoping to get employees and human resources personnel to learn how they can be effective and aware of mental health issues,” Urso said.

Friday evening includes a concert by Judy Collins, who also serves as Saturday morning’s keynote speaker.

“She herself is a survivor,” Urso said. “Her son, her only child, took his life a number of years ago. It’s something she’s passionate about.”

Saturday is devoted to survivors of suicide and features talks by Collins, as well as filmmaker Judith Burdick and wellness advocate and author Deena Baxter.

Burdick’s film, “Transforming Loss,” about the process of healing from a tragedy, will be shown.

Urso saw the film two weeks before her son took his life. She remembers not wanting to go, but later enjoying the film and being touched by the people who were in it, who also happened to be at the viewing.

Weeks later, after learning of her son’s suicide, she kept thinking about the film.

“I kept thinking, ‘People get through these things,’” she said. “That’s really how Kevin’s Song came to be. It was inspired by that film. My husband and I needed some way to channel our energy ... I just kept remembering those people getting up in the audience and smiling.”

The day continues with a loss survivors small group session and a support group. The closing ceremony involves a First Circle drumming experience.

“After our first conference, we had two comments that really stayed with me, both by veteran conference speakers in attendance,” Urso said. “One said our conference was a 10 out of 10, which was really high praise considering it was our first one. The other said it was a conference with heart. I especially love that. It was very important to us that it be a very caring community of people. People feel supported and walk away with information and tools to share.

“People think it’s going to be a difficult few days, but it’s actually very uplifting in many ways,” she continued. “There is hope — a lot of good stories and a lot of good people involved.”

Urso said she’s come to the conclusion that to eliminate suicide moving forward, “it’s going to take a village,” she said. “We need to train teachers, bus drivers, lunch ladies, crossing guards, general practitioners, clergy, parents, students to know what to look for. When you know what to look for, then you know what to do, how to handle the situation.”

Urso said it was predicted in 2013 that 38,000 people would take their lives; this year the estimate is 44,000.

“We have to do something. It’s a public health crisis,” she said. “Since Kevin died and we have told our story, we’ve been amazed at how many people have their own stories,” Urso said. “We are lessening the stigma of being able to talk about it. People are feeling more comfortable. There’s not the same shame associated with it as there used to be. Until people talk about it openly, we can’t really recognize the signs. If I knew before Kevin died what I know now, I think I would have picked up the signs.

“It covers all — men and women, all races, all religions, all ages, all nationalities across the world,” she continued. “But there is hope. Through recognizing certain signs and knowing what to do, we can save lives.”’

For more information about the conference or Kevin’s Song, visit kev inssong.org.

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