Stephen Pecot called his wife, Erin, a walking contradiction. Her lively spirit and personality hid from public view the pain she felt for most of her adult life.
“You see someone like that walking down the street — beautiful, blonde, seems like the world’s their oyster,” Pecot said. “You cannot judge a book by its cover and that’s the same thing with mental health.”
Erin had been diagnosed with depression, but she had also been plagued by a spinal birth defect for years, resulting in excruciating pain that four surgeries over two decades couldn’t remedy.
“From the age of 22 until the time of her death at age 45, she lived with 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week pain and this is not by any means the type of pain most people think of when they think of back pain,” Pecot said. “Somebody’s back goes out, they might go get a [spinal block] and after a couple months maybe they start feeling better. This was unrelenting pain that four surgeries did not touch.
“She could not lift a gallon of milk without being in bed the rest of the day,” he said. “Every decision she ever made in her adult life … revolved around, ‘is this worth it?’”
The couple spent years searching for answers, talking to doctors around the globe, to find Erin relief from her pain, but nothing could help, Pecot said. They spent hours in the University of South Alabama medical library researching remedies.
Then, on Labor Day 2014, Erin took her own life.
“She had her master’s degree in social work and she was a life coach,” Pecot said. “That was part of the whole irony and the way that mental health can … even when you’re helping someone else, it can just be eating away at you. If she was here, she would say the reason that I’m depressed and why I want to die sometimes is because of my pain,” he continued.
Through 12 years of marriage, Pecot said he was able to prepare himself for the possibility Erin might take her own life. He said she had attempted suicide several times and even her family knew it was a case of not “if, but when.”
“There was part of me the whole time we were married that thought, ‘we’re not going to grow old together,’” Pecot said. “She is going to end up having enough of this, but I’m going to keep fighting and we’re going to keep looking for answers.”
While he wasn’t “blindsided,” like many affected by suicide are, Erin’s death still impacted him greatly. He said he still felt an initial shock and just survived for a while. Pecot kept asking himself if there was more he could have done.
“Out of the Darkness”
Lydia Barber, of Daphne, was less prepared when she learned her son, Allen, had taken his own life six years ago at the age of 19. A freshman at the University of Montevallo, Allen had visited home the week before Oct. 27, 2010, and even watched his alma mater, Daphne High School, play a football game. Looking back, Barber said she knows now that he came home to say goodbye.
Since middle school, Barber and her husband were concerned about Allen. She said he had friends, but he was a loner as well.
“We didn’t know anything about depression,” she said. “We thought it was teenage angst.”
In high school, she said, Allen made friends but never went out much and didn’t see them much. Then he went to college.
“He went to school and everything was fine,” Barber said. “We thought he was doing great. Apparently things were going on.”
Since Allen’s death, Barber has worked to raise awareness about suicide and the mental illness that causes many to take their own lives. She helped to organize Baldwin County’s first “Out of the Darkness” walk and Sunday, Oct. 16, will mark the sixth annual event. The walk will take place from 1-4 p.m. at Daphne City Hall. The funds collected from the walk will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The walk in Daphne has done very well, Barber said, attracting between 500 and 800 participants. The event has raised between $40,000 and $45,000 each of the last four years. In addition to selling T-shirts, Barber said the event gets money from sponsors and donations.
Barber said the event will feature a two-mile walk, where participants hold up signs remembering loved ones lost to suicide. The event will also feature a butterfly release at 3:45 p.m. Those interested in participating can register online at www.outofthedarkness.org.
“We want a lot of people there,” Barber said. “We’d love to have people come and let people see the numbers who support suicide awareness.”
Allison Clemmons, who grew up in both Mobile and Baldwin counties, said she plans to participate in the Daphne walk as captain of Team Zero Stigma. Clemmons, who suffers from bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was misdiagnosed for most of her adult life, attempting suicide once by taking “whatever pills were in the medicine cabinet.”
Her disorder manifested itself in very energetic highs, where she would frustratingly start projects she wouldn’t finish, or in rage. She also would suffer bouts of depression and mixed states.
“Every part of your body hurts,” Clemmons said of depression. “Your hair hurts. It’s a miserable, miserable way to live.”
One of the biggest issues facing those who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses is that those who don’t have the symptoms don’t often empathize. She said there’s a stigma attached to mental illness that needs to go away.
Clemmons said technology is helping to remove the stigma from mental illness. She, for instance, uses Twitter as a platform to raise awareness. She said the internet is full of “whole communities” of people who’ve gone through similar experiences and are willing to share.
“Technology is a game changer,” she said. “It can provide open sources of information and can help find individuals who’ve gone through the same things.”
Americans attempt suicide 1.1 million times per year and die by suicide once every 12.3 minutes, according to information provided by the AFSP. Veterans make up 22.2 percent of all suicides and men are more likely than women to take their own lives. In fact, for every woman who dies from suicide, four men die.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, with nearly 43,000 people dying from suicide each year, according to AFSP. In Alabama, which ranks 24th in suicides, an average of 712 people take their own lives each year.
The number of suicide deaths is on the rise, AFSP state director Ashley Foster said, especially among youth. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and teens ages 10 to 14 and the third leading cause of death among teens and adults 15 to 24.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System reports there have been 19 veteran suicides since October 2014 in the GCVHCS operating area, from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Panama City, Florida. GCVHCS employs a full-time suicide prevention staff that is ready to help veterans in crisis. Veterans and/or family members may also call the Veterans Crisis Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).
Foster said the organization is looking at ways to educate the general public and remove the stigma associated with mental illness, as it is a contributing factor in about 90 percent of suicides. The organization wants to reduce the suicide rate 20 percent by 2028.
“I don’t think people realize how many people die by suicide,” Foster said. “There hasn’t been a ton of information put out there.”
AFSP does provide information on treatment as well as warning signs and risk factors on its website at afsp.org.
Anna Grace Claunch, of Fairhope, said there were few warning signs when her father, John, took his own life nearly four years ago, on Nov. 7, 2012. Claunch said her father had lost his job in September and the family was struggling, but he “acted exactly the same.”
Everything seemed fine, in fact, until that morning. Claunch said her 9-year-old sister had gone to school and she and her mother had left for a doctor’s appointment 23 days before her 18th birthday. She said her mother found a note on her bedside table when she returned home.
“He wrote notes to everyone in my family,” she said. “He wrote about the financial struggle … the house had gone into foreclosure, things he never told my mom.”
At first, Claunch said she couldn’t believe it, but later realized her father suffered from a mental illness: he was depressed.
“He kept it hidden,” she said. “I think he did struggle with depression. Losing his job was his breaking point.”
Today, Claunch is a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis. She is studying religion with a focus on interfaith and wants to go to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. Her father’s suicide pushed her toward the ministry, she said.
“My dad was very full of faith, very spiritual,” Claunch said.
She has spent a lot of time studying mental illness and even teaches classes about it. Claunch said she would like to make mental illness education a part of her ministry.
“In the past, the stigma attached to mental illness was big in the church,” she said. “That’s not as much the case anymore. You never hear a sermon on mental illness and I’d like to bring those issues up.”
Pecot said he received a lot of help from coworkers at forestry consulting firm Larson & McGowin.
“It kind of makes you think, you know, businesses can a lot of the times be so busy with things that you can kind of get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “Where I work, it’s basically a family. It’s a family business. So, everybody was very supportive.”
Pecot is also a big proponent of therapy. He also attends a support group called “Survivors of Suicide” that meets at the Fairhope United Methodist Church twice a month. He said interacting with others who’ve gone through similar experiences has been helpful.
“It’s a place for people — some people don’t believe in counseling, some people do — regardless, it’s just a place for people who are going through this to be around other people who are also going through it and to share things that they’re going through and ideas that have worked and haven’t worked,” he said. “It’s just a super dynamic group that we have. It’s always sad because someone new always shows up.”
Suicide prevention resources and help for survivors:
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), for Veterans, press 1
• Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741741 to reach a trained counselor
CrisisChat.org: for online support
• Survivors of Suicide
Fairhope United Methodist Church
Second and fourth Monday of every month, 6:30 p.m.
Please email [email protected] for more information.
• Survivors of Suicide
Lifeline Counseling Services
Meets twice per month.
Please email [email protected] for more information.