Michigan-based Kevin's Song suicide awareness conference goes virtual with a focus on equity and equality

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click to enlarge Michigan-based Kevin's Song suicide awareness conference goes virtual with a focus on equity and equality

Gail Urso is going to miss the in-person hugging.

Urso, the co-founder of Kevin’s Song — a charitable organization focused on raising awareness about suicide, as well as offering support to loss and attempt survivors — says that though this year’s annual suicide conference has gone virtual due to the pandemic, it’s still going to touch a lot of people, she and her husband John included.

Kevin’s Song was founded in 2013, just months after Gail and John suffered the loss of their son, the organization's namesake, to suicide at age 41. They grieved, mourned, and asked the tough and unanswerable questions, but then they did what many other people could not: they jumped into action.

“So many people have wondered how we could do it,” Gail says. “And I think for me, fortunately, my husband and I were kind of in the same place about it. When it happened, we were so shocked. We had no idea that suicide was a possibility. Kevin was 41, lived in Florida, and had suffered from some depression over the years. We thought he was doing well. But after he died, we began to learn how common suicide is.”

Just a few months after Kevin’s death, Newsweek published an all too timely cover story about suicide, calling the rising suicide rate in the United States an epidemic. Though she and John consider themselves educated people, Gail admits they had no idea as to just how many people suicide has affected, nor were they aware of the signs, symptoms, and masked cries for help so many people exhibit before they chose to end their lives.

“We attended meetings, some support groups, and we began to read things. That was all part of our grieving process,” Gail says. “And we just felt like, if we didn't know this, think of how many other people don't know. So let's see what we can do. So we founded Kevin's Song with a very clear picture: Let's have a conference, and let's do a film, and let's have a really good website that's a resource. We had no idea that, you know, five years later, we would be having the fifth annual conference.”

The need for suicide education and support is more important than ever, making Kevin's Song a powerful vehicle for getting information to the public, as well as mental health professionals and educators. Suicide, as Newsweek claimed eight years ago, remains a global epidemic, with suicide rates increasing at alarming rates.

Though the U.S. experienced a rare decrease in suicide deaths in 2019, experts are not confident that 2020's statistics, which have yet to be fully analyzed, will be continue in that trend.

Early research out of the University of Chicago has found that the pandemic and recession were affiliated with a 10%-60% increase in deaths of despair, which were already high pre-pandemic. In addition to isolation, financial, and employment concerns — and a staggering loss of life, as COVID-19 made 2020 the deadliest year in U.S. history — many people also experienced a disruption in their in-person treatment and support systems due to the pandemic.

And it's not just in the U.S. In Japan, more suicide deaths were reported in October of last year than COVID-19 deaths in all of 2020, and globally it's estimated that one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.

Though Gail says this year's conference will continue to address these known increases, as well as highlighting the importance of suicide education through guest speakers from all across the country while offering free support for loss and attempt survivors, the fifth iteration of Kevin's Song will focus on equity and equality in suicide prevention.

According to mortality data, suicide affects white Americans significantly more than people of color. The reason? Well, for one, experts believe that many suicide deaths among people of color are underreported or misclassified because suicides can often be difficult to prove. But because 79% of Black Americans identify as Christian, they might believe that death by suicide might mean they may not reach heaven after death. This, however, doesn't mean that mental health is of no concern to people of color. In fact, it's all the more dire for those reasons.

“We feel so this is an area that hasn't had enough attention paid to it,” Gail says. “The fact is that suicide affects all races, all religions, and all ethnic groups. But there are social problems that exist in certain communities that cause more hopelessness, more despair. You know, during COVID, we have seen the inequities in our systems. For instance, in education, in Grosse Pointe, people are struggling to get their kids to focus on the computer screen. And I'm not minimizing that in any way, but not too many miles away you have kids that don't have WiFi.”

For Gail and her family, Kevin's Song remains about Kevin and those like Kevin who may not have felt they had any other choice. She reminds of the importance of creating a space where people feel comfortable and safe to discuss their experiences — especially attempt survivors who can illuminate to others as to what to look for and how to help.

“What I have found through talking to the experts, the people who are studying suicide, is they are learning tremendous amounts from attempt survivors,” Gail says. “And because the attempt survivors are the people that are in that moment, there's much to be learned from them. And fortunately, you know, there are now lots of people who are willing to share. I think it just opens the door for people to understand there's no shame and there should be no stigma, and that people that died by suicide suffer. And survivors didn't cause it.”

Gail describes Kevin as being “very funny,” and says she and John often laugh about his vibrant sense of humor. As for the song in Kevin's Song? Gail says that her son loved a wide range of music.

“Elton John was his favorite,” she says. “When I saw the movie [Rocket Man], I had a really hard time watching that because I didn't realize how tormented he was and I wondered if Kevin was reading into that or could relate to him in ways I didn't appreciate. I know Elton John and I like him, but I never realized the substance behind his songs, and I think Kevin did. You never know who is struggling.”

The 5th Annual Kevin's Song virtual suicide conference will take place on Jan. 21 through Jan. 23. Registration for the paid portion of the conference ends at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19. A portion of Saturday's programming
Surviving Suicide – a Journey of Hope and Healing will be open to the public free of charge and will be live-streamed starting around noon. Tickets and more information can be found at Kevinssong.org.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

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