By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – When Becky Roniger saw an article in the newspaper in 2001 about a meeting at the Covington library, attempting to start a suicide prevention group in St. Tammany Parish, it got her attention.
Roniger would still rather not talk too much about her daughter, Beth, who committed suicide in 1999. Her daughter was 19 and attending college in New Orleans when she died from an overdose, in a dual-suicide with her boyfriend.
“So many young people simply see it as a way out of the pain they are experiencing,” Roniger said. “They don’t really want to die, but they see it as a way out of an overwhelming pain.”
Roniger believes her daughter was in that same situation, and didn’t confide in her parents enough to alert her mom and dad about the seriousness of her thoughts.
Almost two years after the 1999 suicide took the life of her daughter, Roniger was hoping to make something positive happen out of the tragic death Beth suffered. And from the 2001 meeting at the Covington Library, Rongier was among a small group of people who started the STOPS organization—St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide.
Now starting its 14th year in the parish, STOPS is addressing a high rate of suicides in St. Tammany. The parish’s suicide rate has garnered a lot of attention from law enforcement and public officials in recent years.
St. Tammany has an 18 percent higher rate than the state average for suicides, posting an all-time high of 41 suicides in 2007. In the past five years the parish has averaged 34 suicides a year.
“Suicide has been around as long as there have been people,” Roniger said. “It’s hard to say exactly why St. Tammany has a higher rate than the state, but one thing we do know—people can be helped if they talk to someone about it, before it is too late.”
STOPS is best known for its help line, but the organization has made it their mission to offer training for individuals who work in a profession that can reach people at risk—whether teens or older.
For that matter, even though teenagers get more attention for suicides, it is actually middle-aged, white men who have the highest number of suicides, both locally and on a national level.
“Suicide happens because an individual is suffering pain that is unbearable, and they see suicide as a way out of that pain,” Roniger explained. “Teens, in particular, don’t see the finality of it. Sometimes they may have a break-up situation and think that if they commit suicide, they are somehow going to come back and see the people who have hurt them. But too many don’t realize that suicide is completely the end. The problem with teens is that they make such impulse decisions about suicide, and sometimes you know about a critical situation, but something happens before you can do anything to help.”
Roniger shares her personal situation with others as a way to help them know she understands. Her situation with Beth is all too typical, in that they raised a middle class family on the North Shore, sending their two daughters to private, Christian schools.
Beth was an excellent student who went on to St. Scholastica High School before graduating from Mandeville High, but when she went to UNO as a freshman, she slipped into drug problems. Her circumstances left her facing such a difficult future, she and her boyfriend elected to end their lives.
“Beth was a very smart girl, but she made some bad choices,” Roniger said. “We didn’t realize she was so fragile because she didn’t talk to us about the situation she was in, and how overwhelming it was to her. She didn’t see any other way out.”
Roniger said that parents need to get teens to talk about problems or situations they are worried about.
“Our daughter was probably like a lot of teens. She had too many secrets and tried to fix them herself,” she said. “Since getting involved in STOPS, through a lot of education, I’ve learned how important it is for anyone considering suicide to talk to a trusted friend or adult. When you talk about it, the problem doesn’t seem so overwhelming.”
Roniger said the reason so many middle-aged men commit suicide is because society leads them to believe they have to be strong in the face of problems.
“Men think they have to be strong and can’t show any weaknesses,” she said. “But they are like everyone else. We all need to talk about our problems and things that worry us. The number one message we tell people is that the only way to stop this is if you talk about it.”
STOPS started with Roniger and a handful of others getting behind the group in 2001. They send a team of two people to any parish suicide scene to offer brochures and information for families affected, so they can get help after the fact.
But the biggest area to help in the community is from seminars STOPS offers for groups, or individuals, to learn how to help someone who may be contemplating suicide.
The ASIST program (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) offers education on how to talk to people in crisis situations, and is geared toward caregivers. The next class will be held on June 13-14 at the Sheriff’s Office in Slidell.
A shorter version of suicide alert help is found in the SafeTALK class (three hours long) that STOPS offers every three months. For more information on either class, go to the STOPS website to sign up, or call 237-5506.
“With such a lack of mental health services in the area, we need to teach other intervention techniques. The ASIST class is great for caregivers, counselors or anyone who may have a connection to people in crisis,” Roniger said. “It is a two-day class and costs $250, so we need more business sponsors or grants to provide the training for as many people as possible.”
Roniger said her work with STOPS the past 12 years has helped her know she has prevented some suicides, which is a measure of consolation after what happened in her personal life.
“I know my work has helped others,” she said. “And that is all I can do now. Beth had a friend who committed suicide a year before she did, and even though we were suspicious about her situation, we didn’t fully understand it.
“That’s why I tell people to get someone to talk if you think they are at risk. The real answer to help people is to get them to talk,” she said.